The head of Afghanistan National Directorate of Security (NDS) has said that Iran and Russia are in contact with the Taliban and are supporting the militant group in Afghanistan. In an interview with the BBC Persian, Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai pointed out that Tehran and Moscow provide assistance to the Taliban under the pretext of fighting the Islamic State, which has gained a foothold in South Asia in recent years. The Afghan intelligence chief, however, cautioned that such a policy is ill-advised as the Taliban and ISIS are two sides of the same coin. He pointed out that the Kabul government has evidence the Taliban are importing foreign fighters, including ISIS militants, into northern Afghanistan and Central Asia. He rejected the allegation that certain Afghan officials support the Taliban. “If we’re spreading rumors for our political ends without analyzing them, we need to assess their impact on the national interest. This provides an excuse to other countries that say the Taliban are better than ISIS and seek their support to eliminate ISIS.”

Comment: Since the fall of the Taliban 16 years ago, Iran has played both sides of the conflict in Afghanistan. On the one hand, Tehran has cultivated close ties with Kabul and contributed to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. Iran has also emerged as Afghanistan’s largest trading partner as relations between Kabul and Islamabad has been deteriorating. At the same time, however, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has been providing training, money, arms and sanctuary to Taliban militants to pressure the US military forces to leave the country. The Iranian government has also used its ties with the Taliban to seek political concessions from the Kabul government.

Lately, the Afghan government has become more vocal about Iran’s relationship with and support for the Taliban. In September, for example, the Chief of General Staff for the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces said that the Kabul government had evidence that Iran was providing weapons and other military assets to the Taliban in western Afghanistan. In an interview with the BBC Persian, Lieutenant General Mohammad Sharif Yaftali added that President Ashraf Ghani discussed the issue with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani in Tehran in August but did not disclose details of the meeting. He stressed that the Afghan government wanted to resolve the issue through “dialogue and understanding”

Last month, a prominent Afghan politician cautioned that it was not in the interest of Iran to have close relations with the Taliban. “As an Afghan, I explicitly state that cultivating close relations – I hope it is a mistake – with an enemy, which has no difference with ISIS in its essence and substance, is harmful not only to the Iranian people but also to the people Afghanistan,” Amrullah Saleh, the head of the Afghan Green Trend and former intelligence chief, said at the Tehran Security Conference. He further reminded the audience at the conference that the Taliban harbors sectarian hatred toward the Shiites and massacred ethnic Afghan Hazaras when the terrorist group was in power prior to the 2001 US intervention.

Last year, Afghan officials also alleged that Iran and Russia had teamed up to undermine the US-led stabilization mission in Afghanistan through providing calculated support to the Taliban. “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, as saying in an interview. 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. About 80 percent of Farah Province has reportedly fallen to the Taliban.

Even Iran’s traditional Afghan allies are speaking out. 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 last year 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.” Khan has also alleged that Taliban militants receive weapons from Turkmenistan.

Likewise, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Iranian government was providing the Taliban with weapons and financial assistance, particularly in western Afghanistan. He also noted that Tehran is also recruiting Shiite fighters in Afghanistan and deploying them to defend the Syrian regime of Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad. "Russia, Iran, and al Qaeda are playing significant roles in Afghanistan—this wasn't the case a few years ago," the American general testified.

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.

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 US 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.