Iran’s Shi’te clerical regime is forming a strategic alliance with Afghanistan’s hard-line Sunni Taliban. Their covert coalition will have far-reaching consequences for Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, as well as rigid Islamist militant groups and regimes throughout the greater Middle East.
A few months ago, I began probing occasional media reports of growing cooperation between Tehran and the Afghan Taliban. What I found, mostly from Taliban insiders, is remarkable.
Tehran is not only openly engaging with the Taliban; it is also extending material support to their insurgency with training camps located inside Iran. This is an extraordinary development, not only because the two follow different sects of Islam but were archenemies. Tehran threatened to go to war with the Taliban in 1998 and attempted to assassinate their founding leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, in 1999.
The budding relationship between the two first came to light when a U.S. drone killed former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur. He was killed in southwestern Pakistan on May 21, 2016, after crossing over from Iran the same day. The Pakistani passport Mansur carried had several Iranian immigration stamps inadvertently documenting his trips to the country.
Tehran was first drawn to Mansur after he publically warned the Islamic State (IS) group’s leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, against extending his organization’s operation into Afghanistan in June 2015.
Mawlawi Amin (name changed), a senior Taliban commander who was removed by Mansur, told me that after Mansur formally assumed the Taliban leadership in July 2015, the Taliban’s relations with Iran began to grow rapidly. By the end of the year, Amin says, Tehran helped the Taliban establish two military training camps on its soil. The camps in a remote part of Iran’s southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province were close to the country’s borders with Pakistan and Afghanistan to ease Taliban movements into the battlefield in southern Afghan provinces and minimize the potential of the Taliban to inspire local Sunni Baluch to radicalize.
Amin said Iranian officials were regularly sending weapons and money to the Taliban leadership council, called Quetta Shura after the southwestern Pakistani province based in Pakistan. Mansur used his relations with Iran to consolidate grip over the Taliban organization. He quickly sidelined Mullah Omar confidant Tayyab Agha, who had developed relations with Iran in the previous years and was formally responsible for keeping contact with Tehran. In a swipe at Mansur, Agha resigned as head of Taliban Qatar office in August 2015 after publicly questioning Mansur’s reliance on foreign sponsors.
A Taliban commander in the western Afghan province of Herat said Mansur used to vet and approve commanders before officially introducing them to his Iranian contacts. This was his way of ensuring that only his loyalists could receive assistance and training from the Iranians.
Haji Mawin (name changed), a member of the Taliban leadership council, said that after Mansur’s death most of the Iranian assistance now goes to Sirajuddin Haqqani and Ibrahim Sadar. Haqqani is the deputy head of the Taliban while Sadar is the current Taliban military chief. “Such an unfair distribution angers Gul Agha Akhund, one of the key former loyalists to Mansur and head of the Taliban finance commission,” he noted.
Iran's financial help would be a welcome relief for the Taliban, who are suffering from a slump in revenues. This is partly because decreasing international aid and a diminishing international presence in Afghanistan. The Taliban have indirectly benefited from international assistance. Many contractors in the countryside have paid Taliban cash to buy their protection and prevent them from attacking their convoys and projects.
The Taliban's alliance with Iran casts a shadow over the hard-line movement's future and public image in Afghanistan. After sweeping through most of Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Taliban openly challenged Iran for supporting its enemies. This prompted Tehran to view them as a major threat. The two nearly went to war after nine Iranian diplomats were killed during the Taliban’s recapture of the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif in September 1998. Tehran mobilized 200,000 army troops and 70,000 Revolutionary Guards near its border with Afghanistan.
The major Iranian assault on Taliban leadership, however, remained unreported. In August 1999, a massive truck bomb detonated outside Taliban leader Mullah Omar’s house in Kandahar. Omar remained unhurt from the explosion, but two of his half-brothers and five security guards were killed. A former Taliban minister, who is not a member of the insurgency now, investigated the attack recently told me that Tehran was behind the bombing.
Tehran's threat perception led it to be "comprehensively helpful" in supporting the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks. In the subsequent years, particularly after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tehran saw the U.S.-led intervention as a threat and began viewing the Taliban in a different light.
In the initial years of the Taliban insurgency, Iran established contacts with some Taliban field commanders and began supporting their activities in southern and western Afghan provinces close to the Afghan border. Haji Lala, a senior Taliban figure who once commanded more than 300 fighters in the western Herat and Farah Provinces, told me that Tehran would finance his group’s activities only if they targeted NATO troops.
“Sepah Pasdaran [the Revolutionary Guard] invited me to Iran twice. In my first meeting in 2009 before the U.S. troops surge, I asked whether there would be a reward for attacking the Afghan government because it was comparatively easier for us,” Lala said in September 2016. “My hosts clearly said they want the U.S. [primarily] and other NATO [secondarily] to bleed in Afghanistan."
Iran now appears to be joining Russia in pushing back against the U.S. and NATO presence in Afghanistan. Tehran and Moscow appear keen on recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate party in the Afghan conflict. Its relations with the Taliban, however, come at a cost for both. It is destabilizing Afghanistan and fueling violence, which would eventually impact regional security affecting Iran.
Tehran is likely to be stung by its strategy to contain the Islamic State militants by bankrolling the Taliban. The Taliban are capable of providing a conducive environment for Sunni militants of all hues whose future aims will inevitably clash with those of Iran's clerical regime.
Support from Iran has eroded Taliban claims to be waging a just Jihad against the U.S. presence. It also concerns the senior generation of Taliban who founded the movement along with Mullah Omar. Moreover, it will negatively affect their relations with the Arab Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, who considered Iran as their archenemy.
The recent killing of diplomats from the United Arab Emirates in a bomb attack the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban movement, has fanned perceptions that elements within Taliban carried it out at Iran’s behest. Arabs, in response, could choose IS as their new ally in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
Hekmatullah Azamy (@HekmatAzamy) is a research analyst with the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS) in Kabul, Afghanistan. These views are the author's alone and do not represent those of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty or his employer.