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The New York Times reported on the growing closeness of relations between the governments in Iran and Russia, and the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, something that became especially salient earlier this year and which has been visible for at least two years.
IRAN, RUSSIA, AND PAKISTAN
Mullah Akhtar Mansour became the Taliban’s leader in July 2015 after it was revealed that the Taliban’s founder-leader, Mullah Muhammad Umar, had been dead since 2013. Mansour was killed in May 2016 in a drone strike. The strike was remarkable for two reasons. First, it was conducted in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan. Second and more extraordinary to many at the time, Mansour was returning from a trip to Iran where he had been invited and received by the government.
The Baluchi provincial capital, Quetta, has been known as the haven of the Taliban in exile for some time, but this area has been off-limits for American aerial attacks to avoid inflaming Pakistani opinion and strengthening the hand of undesirable forces in Pakistan. The strike against Mansour elucidated, in the most acute form since the raid that killed Usama bin Ladin, the deeply troubling issues surrounding Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus and its complicity with international terrorism.
“Mansour had been tight with the Iranians since his time in the Taliban government in the 1990s”, The Times reports. The Taliban made money from the opium trade and Iran was its main conduit for getting the drugs to the outside world. Mansour coordinated this with Iranian officials. Mansour’s outreach to Iran—on a prior trip Mansour had been hosted in Tehran and possibly met with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei—came as part of an effort to diversify the movement’s revenue streams, which had involved thirteen trips to Dubai and one to Bahrain.
The most crucial overlapping aspects of Mansour’s May 2016 meeting with Iranian security officials were that this was signed-off on by his Pakistani handlers, another manifestation of the increasing cooperation between Iran and Pakistan, and that the Iranians enabled Mansour to coordinate with Russia to receive money and arms:
Iran facilitated a meeting between Mullah Mansour and Russian officials, Afghan officials said, securing funds and weapons from Moscow for the insurgents.
Mullah Mansour’s cultivation of Iran for weapons was done with the full knowledge of Pakistan, said the former Taliban commander, who did not want to be identified since he had recently defected from the Taliban.
“He convinced the Pakistanis that he wanted to go there and get weapons, but he convinced the Pakistanis that he would not come under their influence and accept their orders,” he said.
Pakistan had also been eager to spread the political and financial burden of supporting the Taliban and had encouraged the Taliban’s ties with Iran. …
Mullah Mansour stayed for a week, also meeting with a senior Russian official in the town of Zahedan.
Russia first admitted they were supporting the Taliban in December 2015, allegedly to contain the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K). Moscow maintained connections to various factions in Afghanistan even after its withdrawal in 1989. Though relations with the Taliban were testy for much of the 1990s, there were efforts by the Taliban to “stabilize” relations via Saddam Husayn. The Coalition in Afghanistan has complained of Russia extending political legitimacy to an intransigent Taliban and Russia has also opened up training camps for the Taliban in Tajikistan. Last month, convincing evidence was uncovered of Russian weaponry being transferred to the Taliban.
It is likely that the Russia gambit is what sealed Mansour’s fate: it gave Mansour options that some in Pakistan saw as a threat to their control of the insurgency in Afghanistan. Moscow is indeed thinking along these lines, of displacing Pakistan, which still remains (officially) in the Western column, as the major sponsor of the Taliban, and therefore making itself the address the West has to call on to make peace in Afghanistan. For this reason, elements in Islamabad were even forthcoming with information about Mansour to the Americans.
A LONG-TERM TREND
Striking Mansour on return from Iran was intentional, designed to cast suspicion between Tehran and the Taliban. It failed. The blame largely fell on Pakistan, leading to some fracturing of the Taliban. This means that while Iran lost its key link, Mansour, it gained more space for mischief and the Taliban’s new leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, did not move to repudiate contact with the Iranians. Iran was behind the Taliban offensive in October 2016 that among other things besieged the provincial capital of Farah Province for three weeks, “part of the Taliban’s most ambitious attempt since 2001 to retake power” as The Times notes.
American airstrikes eventually broke the siege of Farah city. Among the dead were four Iranian commandos. Not only were the Iranians taken back into Iran for burial, “Many of the Taliban dead and wounded were also taken back across the nearby border with Iran, where the insurgents had been recruited and trained”. Iran formalized public political relations with the Taliban in 2014 and has opened numerous terrorism training camps on Iranian soil for the Taliban. In January 2017, NATO had to beat back another Iranian-backed insurgent offensive in Farah.
The moment of crisis in 1998, when Iran nearly invaded Afghanistan in revenge for the Taliban murdering the Iranian diplomats at Mazar-i-Sharif, is often invoked—as is the Sunni-Shi’a divide—to insist on an incompatibility between the Taliban and Tehran. The reality is quite otherwise.
The sectarian divide has not prevented Iran developing strategic relations with al-Qaeda, nor for that matter with other Sunni militants, whether Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Hamid al-Razak (Haji Hamidullah) in Afghanistan, or organisations like HAMAS.
With the Taliban, relations had mended to the point that Iran offered support in resisting the Western intervention that brought down the Taliban government in 2001, and Iran’s support to the Taliban has been intensifying since at least 2007. Like Russia, Iran contends that it is bolstering the Taliban in order to blunt IS-K. The timeline is sufficient to overthrow this narrative since IS-K did not exist when Iran took the decision to use the Taliban to murder Western soldiers and destabilize the elected government of Afghanistan.
At this point, Iran’s revolutionary Islamist government is “providing local Taliban insurgents with weapons, money and training,” The Times reports. Iran “has offered Taliban commanders sanctuary and fuel for their trucks. It has padded Taliban ranks by recruiting among Afghan Sunni refugees in Iran”.
Additionally, according to The Times, “Iran has sent squads of assassins, secretly nurtured spies and infiltrated police ranks and government departments, especially in western provinces”. This should be a particular concern to Western governments. The rate of “green-on-blue” attacks is alarming as it is, and in prior cases where the West has tried to work alongside Iranian-penetrated states for common interests, notably Bosnia, the Iranians took the chance to try to kill Western officials. Indeed, in Afghanistan, this has likely already occurred: in December 2012, an American civilian trainer was shot dead at Kabul Police Headquarters by a female recruit who is believed by the Afghan government to be an Iranian agent.
THE HARVEST OF SYRIA
Herat, “sometimes called ‘Little Iran’, is [the Iranian regime’s main gateway” into Afghanistan, The Times records. “People in Herat speak with Iranian accents. Iranian schools, colleges and bookshops line the streets. Women wear the head-to-foot black chador favored in Iran. Shops are full of Iranian sweets and produce. … The city is filled with Iranian spies, secret agents and hit squads, local officials say, and it has been plagued by multiple assassinations and kidnappings in recent years. The police say Iran is funding militant groups and criminal gangs. A former mayor says it is sponsoring terrorism”.
Alongside this use of bribery, infiltration, and violence to get its way, Iran has engaged in “softer” forms of outreach, albeit with hard edges, attempting to export its revolution among the Hazara and other Shi’i populations in Afghanistan, by eliminating religious rivals and refashioning traditional Shi’ism into the radical, politicized Khomeini’ist version of the faith. The Iranians have also recruited significantly among Afghans, mostly the refugees in Iran as a result of the Soviet occupation, for their Shi’a jihad in Syria to defend the regime of Bashar al-Asad. The return of the Afghans from Liwa Fatemiyun, and the legitimizing influence Iran’s interference has on IS-K, sets the stage for sectarian violence of a kind that Afghanistan has heretofore largely been free of.
The chaos sown by Iran’s presence in Afghanistan is hardly incidental to the project. Iran’s aim in Afghanistan is the same as in Iraq: to create an unstable, weak, and dependent neighbour free of Western influence. In this, Iran has been greatly assisted by the last few years of Western policy that stood aside—and indeed actually looked favourably on—the expansion of Iran’s role all across the Greater Middle East, most visibly in Syria, even as Tehran solidified an alliance with the returning Russians to underwrite this imperium. As Timor Sharan, a member of the Afghan government put it, “The Syria issue gave confidence to Iran and Russia, and now that confidence is playing out in Afghanistan”.