Middle East

Iranian retaliation not over; eyes on Afghanistan

Iranian demonstrators chant slogans during a protest against the assassination of the Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani who was killed in an air strike at Baghdad airport, in front of United Nation office in Tehran, Iran January 3, 2020. WANA/Nazanin Tabatabaee via REUTERS Protest against the assassination of Iranian Major-General Soleimani in front of United Nation office in Tehran

BEIRUT: Iranian retaliation over the killing of Al-Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani is not over. At first, it was widely believed that Syria and Iraq would become the main theaters of conflict related to this incident. However, sources with knowledge of Hezbollah’s decision-making circle said that Afghanistan should be carefully watched.

Monday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said if Soleimani “wanted to kill American generals it would have been very, very easy for him, in Afghanistan, Iraq and any other place. He never did that."

Secretary-General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah ruled out targeting U.S. civilians living, working or studying in the region in retaliation for the killing of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the leader of the Iraqi group Kataeb Hezbollah. He also said that “resistance” groups were different and separate from Iran, which he said would respond in “the way it wants.”

At the Al-Assad air base in Iraq on Jan. 8, Iran attacked a local military base housing U.S. troops. Reactions were mixed over how effective Tehran’s attempt at revenge was. Another point to keep in mind was how Nasrallah distinguished the response of the “resistance” from that of Iran.

Nasrallah’s justification for not targeting U.S. civilians in the region was that it would “serve [U.S. President Donald] Trump’s interests.” With Trump beginning his re-election campaign, the Afghanistan war is a hot-button issue, especially given that one of his main promises in the last race for the White House was to withdraw American troops from unnecessary wars.

Although Iran and the Taliban were on opposite sides inside Afghanistan, this relationship changed after the U.S. launched its war in Kabul in 2001. In recent years, Afghan Shiite fighters have joined Iran’s Fatemiyoun Brigades and proxies in Syria.

Two weeks ago, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East Gen. Frank McKenzie made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan and admitted a “worrisome trend” of Iranian activity – something he said posed a serious risk to American soldiers.

“Iran has always sort of dabbled a little bit in Afghanistan, but they see perhaps an opportunity to get after us and the coalition here through their proxies,” McKenzie said during his visit. “So we are very concerned about that here as we go forward.”

On-and-off negotiations between Washington and Taliban over U.S. withdrawal have been turbulent, to say the least.

In January, a U.S. Bombardier E-11A aircraft crashed in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province, killing both crew members on board. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the incident, but the U.S. continues to deny this. It is still unclear what happened.

With an estimated 13,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, the country is a prime target for terrorists or Iranian proxies. Any attack on U.S. troops would deal a devastating blow to Trump, who continues to ramp up Washington’s maximum-pressure campaign against Tehran.

Nasrallah is set to speak Sunday in memory of fallen “generals of the resistance,” including Soleimani, Imad Mughniyeh and Abbas Moussawi. This will be his first public speech since the one-week commemoration their deaths.

 

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