Afghan and U.S. officials say Iran and Russia have teamed up to undermine the U.S.-led stabilization efforts in Afghanistan by sheltering, training, funding and arming Taliban insurgents. They claim that the two countries have not only expanded their diplomatic engagement with the Taliban leadership, but are also providing advanced weapons to the insurgents that are fighting the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition forces in the country. Iran has reportedly set up new training camps for Taliban fighters along Afghanistan’s border and has delivered Russian arms to the insurgents in western and southern Afghan provinces.
On Thursday, Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the head of the U.S. military's European Command and the Supreme Allied Commander for NATO, warned that Russia has deepened its ties with the Taliban. "I've seen the influence of Russia of late, increased influence in terms of association and perhaps even supply to the Taliban," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. And last month, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, said Russia and Iran were supporting the Taliban in part to undermine the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Senior Afghan officials express similar concerns. “We have received [intelligence] reports that Iran has obtained some weapons from Russia and delivered them to the Taliban. We cannot confirm it 100 percent. But intelligence reports show that the Taliban receive training inside Iran,” Afghanistan’s Ariana News quoted Gulbahar Mujahid, the chief security commander of Farah Province, in a report published on March 23. Other Farah officials also told Arian News that the Iranian government has established military training centers for Taliban militants in Zabol, a city in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchestan Province, and in the Khorasan region (Khorasan-e Razavi and South Khorasan Provinces). All the three Iranian provinces share border with Afghanistan. “We have received intelligence reports that training camps have been established in Iran’s Naibandan area [in Khorasan], and they provide military training to the Taliban. Indeed, Russia, with Iran’s assistance, is equipping the Taliban with advanced weapons,” Farah’s Deputy Governor Muhammad Younis Rasooli claimed.
Push-back from Afghan Government
While Afghan leaders often blast the Pakistani government for supporting the Taliban, they have largely been silent about the Iranian government’s relationship with the insurgents over the past decade. But as ties between Tehran and the Taliban are expanding, Afghan leaders – particularly members of parliament and security and civilian officials in southern and western provinces – have recently become more vocal in their criticism of Iran. “Evidence of Russian and Iranian cooperation with the Taliban has been found," Fazal Hadi Muslimyar, chairman of the Afghan Senate, claimed last December, adding that the Senate was investigating growing military ties between the Taliban and Iran and Russia.
Last month, Ismail Khan, a former Afghan jihadi leader and influential politician in western Herat Province, warned the Iranian government against providing military and financial assistance to the Taliban militants. “Support for the Taliban will strain our relations and enemies will never be able to secure your borders,” he said at a gathering in western Herat Province on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan. He also condemned Russia’s growing ties with the Taliban and called on both Tehran and Moscow to “learn from the past and stop aiding the Taliban.” The warning by Khan, who has had close relations with Iran for decades, shows that Afghan leaders have lost patience with Tehran’s double game in Afghanistan. Khan has also alleged that Taliban militants receive weapons from Turkmenistan.
Beyond western Afghanistan
Not all Iranian subversive activities are confined to western Afghanistan, however. Two months ago, Afghan authorities alleged that Iran had sent a delegation to meet with Taliban commanders in the restive province of Helmand. On January 23, Hayatullah Hayat, the governor of Helmand, told Afghanistan’s 1TV channel that the National Directorate of Security was investigating allegations that the Iranian team also delivered weapons to Taliban militants in Helmand’s Garmsir District. The timing of these reports is important as the Taliban have made significant territorial gains in Helmand Province in recent months. The insurgents yesterday captured Helmand Sangin District, a strategic area where more American and British troops have been killed than in any other of Afghanistan’s nearly 400 districts.
Both Iran and Russia have also broadened their diplomatic engagement with the Taliban leadership. Iran has hosted several Taliban delegations for talks and conferences in recent years; and in 2014, the Iranian government “formalized” its relationship with the Taliban by allowing the terrorist group to open an office in Mashhad, the capital of Iran’s Khorasan-e Razavi Province. When a U.S. drone killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansur in Pakistan last year, he was returning from a trip to Iran.
Moscow, too, has cultivated close relations with the Taliban leadership – raising concern in Kabul that regional governments are directly engaging the Taliban for their own interests at the expense of Afghanistan’s stability. The Trump administration has reportedly declined Russia’s invitation to attend a meeting with the Taliban leaders scheduled in Moscow on April 14.
On the surface, Iran’s support for the Taliban does not appear logical: Taliban is a reactionary militant group that massacred Afghan Shiites in late 1990s, and Iran and the Taliban almost went to war when the latter killed Iranian diplomats in northern Afghanistan. The Taliban's return to power in Afghanistan would undermine Iran’s geopolitical interests in South and Central Asia and pose a serious threat to Iran’s internal security as well – particularly in its restive Sunni-majority province of Sistan and Baluchestan. But by providing measured support to the Taliban, the Iranian government is pursuing several key objectives in Afghanistan: to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops from its eastern border; to establish a buffer zone in western Afghanistan against a potential threat of Islamic State; to use its ties with the Taliban for its geopolitical agenda in South and Central Asia as well as in the Middle East; and to pressure the Afghan government for political concessions.
When Iran signed the nuclear agreement with the United States, the Afghan government hoped that a thaw in relations between Washington and Tehran would benefit Afghanistan’s stability and economic development. But if Iran’s growing support for terrorist groups in Afghanistan and across the broader Middle East is any indication, the Islamic Republic has no desire to moderate its behavior in the region or improve its relations with the United States.