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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Iran and Afghan Taliban: A marriage of convenience or something bigger?

News Analysis |

For 16 years, the United States has been in Afghanistan with a goal of preventing the war-torn country from once again being used as a launching pad for international terrorism – as it was during the September 11 attacks. However, contrary to the primary objective of US invasion of the country i.e. to degrade and ultimately destroy Al-Qaeda, US is now at loggerheads with Taliban which is considered as a legitimate insurgent movement by many experts even within the US.

Iran has a broader goal to secure its zone of influence in Farsi speaking and Shiite populated regions of Afghanistan notably in the Central region

Despite spending more than $600 billion and thousands of lives lost, American efforts in Afghanistan have largely fallen short of expectations and promises. As the Trump administration mulls over its next move, experts say both Iran and Russia are actively trying to move in to shape Afghanistan in their favor.

While U.S. debates what the new strategy should be for its mission in Afghanistan, the two American foes are trying to exert their influence over the country’s future. According to U.S. and Afghan officials, both countries have stepped up their contacts with insurgent groups and are even training and arming them.

Read more: Modi revisits Iran ties

Many in US intelligence community believe that Russia provided Afghan Taliban leaders with technology which will enable them to evade US drones. This was reportedly done after the US drone strike on Mullah Mansoor. However, this assumption has never been verified.

Afghan units like Fatemiyoun that has gained enormous battlefield experience in Syria, could be used as an important leverage in a civil war torn Afghanistan

After losing territory immediately after the US invasion in 2001, the Taliban now are gaining ground at an unprecedented pace. The beleaguered group now control areas which were once controlled by the U.S.-led NATO coalition and Afghan security forces. ISIS has also established a foothold in several parts of the country, as well.

The Iranian ties with Afghan Taliban

The Iranian approach to Taliban has changed considerably since the last one and a half decade. In the late 1990s, when Taliban seized power in Kabul, Iran considered it as a threat and backed anti-Taliban forces. But, after 2001, when the US and its allies overthrew the Taliban regime, things changed.

Since then, Iran allegedly provided sanctuary to many leaders of the group and later helped them to reorganize against the United States and its allies in Afghanistan.

Read more: The Twists And Turns Of Indian-Iranian Military Aid To Iraq

In 2007, after the US signed a partnership agreement with Kabul allowing American forces to stay in Afghanistan, Iran ramped up its support to Taliban. The US Department of State’s “Country Reports on Terrorism” for 2012 asserts that “Iran has arranged arms shipments to select Taliban members, including small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, and plastic explosives…

Iran pursues a long-term and multifaceted strategy to secure its influence in Afghanistan and advance its geopolitical agenda in the south and central Asia

In 2012, the Iranians shipped a large number of weapons to Kandahar, Afghanistan, aiming to increase its influence in this key province.” The report adds that the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force “trained Taliban elements on small unit tactics, small arms, explosives, and indirect fire weapons, such as mortars, artillery, and rockets.”

A 2014 report by Pentagon detailed Iranian military support to Taliban. According to WSJ, “Afghan security officials said they had clear evidence that Iran was training Taliban fighters within its borders. Tehran now operates at least four Taliban training camps in the Iranian cities of Tehran, Mashhad, and Zahedan and in the province of Kerman.”

Iranian support to Taliban became apparent in May 2016 when the group’s top leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed by US drone attack in Pakistan as he was returning from Iran. An Iranian publication close to IRGC confirmed that he had stayed in Iran for two months prior to his death and had meetings with Iranian officials.

Read more: Deconstructing Trump: Iran sanctions

In the fall of 2016, Iran’s ambassador to Kabul, Mohammad Reza Behrami, stated that “Iran maintains contacts with the Taliban for control and intelligence purposes”. According to a report published by Wall Street Journal on June 11, 2015, Tehran “formalized” its partnership with the Taliban in early 2014, when it opened an office for the terrorist group in Iran.

Iran’s support to Taliban is viewed as a marriage of convenience as Tehran aims to weaken US military presence in Afghanistan, eventually forcing total US withdrawal

According to Voice of America, “the Afghan Senate said on December 5, 2016, that it will investigate growing military ties between Taliban insurgents and Iran and Russia. Asif Nang, the governor of western Farah province said that families of a number of high ranking Taliban leaders reside in Iran and bodies of Taliban fighters who were killed in recent clashes in the provincial capital have been transported to their families in Iran. Lawmaker Jumadin Gayanwal said that Iran has supplied the group with weapons that could target and damage tanks and planes.”

A report titled “Iranian Taliban?” published by Afghanistan’s largest daily Hasht-e Sobh on November 14, claimed that “the Iranian government had recently put a military training facility inside Iran at the disposal of the Taliban.”

Read more: Gory Human rights abuses in Iran

Why is Iran supporting Afghan Taliban?

Iran seems to be playing a double game with the Afghan government. On one hand, it has developed an economic partnership with the Afghan government and on the other hand, it provides military support to Taliban forces. This is because Iran pursues a long-term and multifaceted strategy to secure its influence in Afghanistan and advance its geopolitical agenda in the south and central Asia. Iran’s support to Taliban is viewed as a marriage of convenience as Tehran aims to weaken US military presence in Afghanistan, eventually forcing total US withdrawal. Iran is also helping Taliban as a counter balance to the presence of ISIS in the country.