August 27, 2017

Washington and Tehran on collision course in Afghanistan

There was no mention of Iran in US Presi­dent Donald Trump’s remarks detailing his long-awaited strategy for resolving the war in Afghani­stan. Sooner or later, however, the United States may find itself at odds with the Islamic Republic in central Asia: While Trump de­clared his support for “the Afghan government and the Afghan mili­tary as they confront the Taliban in the field,” Iran is fast improving its relations with the Taliban.

Tehran did not change its view of the Taliban overnight. As early as 1999, Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor at Tehran University, criticised Iran’s policy towards Af­ghanistan, arguing: “As opposed to the Pakistanis, we have not had a cohesive policy… For a time, we supported the Shia movement. On another occasion we supported [Gulbuddin] Hekmatyar. Still later we supported Burhanaldin Rab­bani…

“They [the Pakistanis] only supported one jihadist group, which we today call the Taliban. A group, by the way, which repre­sents the numerically largest [eth­nic] group in Afghanistan.”

Zibakalam’s criticism was voiced at a time when the Taliban, after systematically defeating Tehran’s Shia clients and Persian-speaking allies in Afghanistan, were consolidating its rule over the central Asian country and posed a military threat to Iran’s eastern borders. On August 8, 1998, the two countries were on the verge of a war after the Tali­ban, after capturing Mazar-i-Sha­rif, killed eight Iranian diplomats and an IRNA news correspondent at the Iranian consulate in that city.

Following that experience, Tehran developed a more complex policy towards Afghanistan.

On the one hand, Tehran is training the Shia Afghan Fatemi­youn Division, which serves as an Iranian proxy in the war in Syria and is preparing for a possible US military disengagement from Af­ghanistan. On the other hand, and more remarkably, Tehran has at­tempted to correct its course and is actively supporting the Taliban as a means of fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS).

The shift in Tehran’s course only became public knowledge in June 2013. While the Iranian Foreign Ministry dismissed the presence of Taliban representa­tives in Tehran, the Taliban, in an official statement, declared: “A delegation from the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, headed by [Sayyid Muhammad Tayyab Agha] the director of its politi­cal office [in Doha, Qatar], was in Tehran for a three-day-long visit to discuss issues of interest for the two parties.”

The statement disclosed that an earlier Taliban delegation partici­pated at the “Religious Leaders and the Islamic Awakening” con­ference in Tehran.

Tehran’s relations with the Taliban reached their peak in March 2016, when then Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour began a “two-months-long visit to Iran,” reported Jahan News. During meetings with Islamic Republic authorities, the Taliban leader allegedly discussed ways to prevent the Taliban from joining ISIS; how to preserve “a Taliban identity distinct from ISIS” and “the fight against nar­cotics trafficking,” the report said. Mansour also allegedly agreed to “prevent expansion of [ISIS] presence in the northern borders of Afghanistan [including] the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border.”

Upon his return from Iran to Pakistan on May 21, 2016, Man­sour was killed when a US drone hit the taxi he was travelling in. The August 9, 2017, edition of the New York Times reported it was the Pakistani government, which, alarmed by the Taliban’s gravita­tion towards Tehran and Moscow, tipped the United States off on Mansour’s whereabouts.

There is speculation that Teh­ran’s overtures to the Taliban out­lived Mansour. Upon the Taliban’s seizure of Taywara district in Ghor on July 23, Fazlul Haq Ihsan, the head of the provincial council of Ghor, in an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, claimed: “The Taliban have received military assistance from Tehran and their [recent] operations were backed by Iran.” In the same report, an unnamed source from Ghor’s gov­ernor’s office accused Pakistan of being behind the Taliban offen­sive in the province.

Both accounts may be true: Tehran and Islamabad may both support the Taliban against ISIS and more broadly in preparation for the possible US military dis­engagement from Afghanistan. It remains to be seen whether the Taliban will manage to diversify its support base without frag­menting into a Pakistani and an Iranian Taliban, considerably weakening the organisation. Under any circumstance, Wash­ington and Tehran may find themselves on a collision course in Afghanistan.