Last week’s news was dominated by reports that the US president had ignored intelligence indicating that Russia offered bounties to the Taliban to murder American troops. The world should not overlook the fact that Iran has long been doing the same: As far back as 2010, Taliban fighters were collecting more than $1,000 each from Iran for each US soldier they killed, and The Sunday Times identified five Iranian front companies in Kabul clandestinely distributing funds to the militants.
Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan at the time, William Patey, said his government was aware that Iran was “supporting the Taliban against our troops … logistically and with money,” which he described as “sickening” given the Taliban’s viciously anti-Shiite ideology.
Although Iran and the Taliban were then nominal enemies, Tehran was exporting weapons for militants to attack NATO forces in western Afghanistan, notably roadside bombs that had proved so deadly in Iraq.
This relationship became considerably warmer from 2015 as Daesh in Afghanistan came to be regarded as a greater threat to Iranian interests. Iran sent squads of assassins and spies, and infiltrated the police and civil service, with far-western Herat a hub for these clandestine activities.
Iran began holding substantive talks with senior Taliban officials about strategic alignment. In 2016 a US drone killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour as he returned from Iran after discussions with Iranian and Russian security officials.
With the US explicitly committed to withdrawal from Afghanistan since late 2018, Iran has become increasingly brazen in seeking a controlling stake in its neighbor’s future
A major Taliban assault on Afghan cities throughout autumn 2016 was largely at Tehran’s instigation. Taliban fighters were recruited from refugee populations in Iran, primarily from Shiite Hazara communities (similar demographics were drawn on for Iran-funded militias in Syria). Dead and wounded Taliban from these campaigns were transferred back to Iran, along with the bodies of four senior Iranian commandos killed in the fighting.
Incentives offered to Afghan recruits for Tehran’s overseas paramilitary adventures include Iranian nationality. However, all but the most desperate refugees have been increasingly reluctant to be deployed as Syrian cannon fodder, particularly after families of the deceased often failed to receive promised compensation.
Iran has forcibly repatriated hundreds of thousands of the three million Afghan refugees inside its territory. Many have suffered extreme brutality by Iranian border guards. In the past couple of months, dozens drowned after being beaten, tortured and forced back into a river along the border. Others were burnt to death after their vehicle was fired on by border guards.
With Tehran offering arms and training for Iran-affiliated Taliban elements in western Afghanistan, Farah province governor Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan (a former intelligence official) observed that “the strongest Taliban here are Iranian Taliban.” Nevertheless, Iran’s ambitions beyond the western provinces are somewhat constrained, given that Hazara and Tajik communities tend to be wary and suspicious of Tehran, while Pashtun footsoldiers of the Taliban are often nakedly hostile.
The US Treasury has designated as terrorists Taliban and Iranian figures overseeing Tehran’s financial and logistical support. “Iran’s provision of military training, financing, and weapons to the Taliban is yet another example of Tehran’s blatant regional meddling and support for terrorism,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. A key figure in the Afghan strategy was Esmail Qaani, who took over as Quds Force commander after Qassim Soleimani’s death.
With the US explicitly committed to withdrawal from Afghanistan since late 2018, Iran has become increasingly brazen in seeking a controlling stake in its neighbor’s future. The Iranian military said it was taking full control over Afghan-Iranian border security. High-profile Taliban and Iranian delegations made a show of engaging with each other, and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said it would be “impossible to have a future Afghanistan without any role for the Taliban.” Iran’s special envoy for Afghanistan was in Doha last week, holding meetings with those top Taliban leaders who prefer Qatar’s five-star treatment to the hardships of Afghanistan.
By 2018 Iran had become Kabul’s biggest trading partner, prompting Washington to offer sanctions exemptions for Afghanistan, despite the 800km Afghan border being a principal conduit for Iranian sanctions evasion.
As sanctions continue to strangle the Iranian economy, the avaricious ayatollahs are eying Afghanistan’s estimated $1 trillion mineral reserves, including copper, lithium, gold and rare-earth elements. There have been efforts to secure a stake in western Afghan iron-ore mines, along with the imminent completion of a rail network between the two countries expected to facilitate the mass movement of raw materials, increasing Kabul’s reliance on Iran as an export conduit. Nevertheless, Iran’s efforts to dominate western Afghanistan overlap with the rival Central Asian strategies of China, Pakistan and Russia.
Iran has vigorously sought to undermine US diplomatic efforts: The Hezb-e Velayat-e Islami, a breakaway Taliban faction thought to be based in Iran and including hardline dissident Taliban commanders who support continuation of the war, rejected the recent understandings reached with the US.
Moscow and Tehran have jointly sought to bog America and its allies down in Afghanistan and ultimately force a humiliating exit. They used similar tactics to force Trump out of eastern Syria, staging increasingly aggressive confrontations against the 500 remaining US troops — scarcely sufficient in number to defend themselves, let alone eradicate Daesh.
Two decades of massive Western efforts to pacify Afghanistan have almost nothing to show for them, despite 3,500 coalition soldiers killed (and well over 100,000 Afghans) and a $2 trillion price tag.
After this humiliating military retreat, Western leaders will now do their utmost to pretend to forget Afghanistan’s existence. Yet 90 percent of the world’s heroin originates there, along with a high proportion of refugees; not to mention Afghanistan’s predilection for hosting worldwide terror plots and terrorist organizations, while remaining a favored route for sanctions evasion, money laundering and arms proliferation. Sooner or later, Europe, America and the Arab world will again find themselves compelled to re-engage with this perfect storm of strategic threats.
Afghanistan is a notorious graveyard for foreign armies. In the 1980s the Soviet Union disintegrated amid its bloody and unaffordable attempts to dominate this territory. A century before, colonialist Britain waged a series of comparably disastrous and futile Afghan campaigns; in 1842, a large British force was annihilated almost to the last man.
Iran, Russia and the Taliban may congratulate each other’s success in forcing the Americans out, but the Islamic Republic would do well to read the history books and realize that when it dips its head into the Afghan quagmire it has little more to gain than a bloody nose.