The Chief of General Staff for the Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces has said that the Kabul government has evidence that Iran is 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 last month in Tehran but did not disclose details of the meeting. He stressed that the Afghan government wants to resolve the issue through “dialogue and understanding” with Tehran. Asked about reports on Russia’s assistance to the Taliban, the top Afghan general said Kabul does not any evidence in that regard. He, however, claimed that Pakistani Army Chief Qamar Bajwa had admitted Islamabad’s links with the Taliban and pledged to eliminate “terrorist safe havens” at a recent quadrilateral meeting between the leaders of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan in Dushanbe.
Comment: It is the first time that the top Afghan military official directly accuses the Iranian government of providing weapons to the Taliban. While local Afghan officials in western Afghanistan have repeatedly complained about Iranian aid to the Taliban in the past decade, top Afghan officials in Kabul have played down such allegations and suggested that the government had no proof. Indeed, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Defense later said the ministry was probing the BBC report and added that the Kabul government had no evidence of Iranian support to the Taliban.
Recently, Afghan officials have repeatedly blasted the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) for providing funding, shelter and weapons to terrorist groups fighting in western and southern Afghan provinces. They have also alleged that the I.R.G.C.’s secretive Quds Force recruit militants from across Afghanistan and run terrorist training camps for them on the Iranian soil. On December 31, for example, Naser Mehri, the spokesman for the governor of western Farah Province, claimed that the I.R.G.C. aided the Taliban and played a prominent role in the latest spike in violence in Farah.
And in November, Farah’s Governor Mohammad Asif Nang said the I.R.G.C. had established military training centers for the Taliban in Birjand, the capital of Iran’s South Khorasan Province, as well as in parts of Khorasan-e Razavi Province. The two provinces share borders with Afghanistan. A report titled “Iranian Taliban?” published by Afghanistan’s largest daily Hasht-e Sobh in the same month claimed that the Iranian government had recently put a military training facility inside Iran – previously used by Afghan mujahedeen fighters against the Taliban in the 1990s – at the disposal of the Taliban.
Likewise, the top American commander in Afghanistan told Congress in February that Iran and Russia are supporting the Taliban to undermine the U.S. mission to stabilize the war-ravaged country. Army Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Iranian government is 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. “I believe [these actions] are in part to undermine the United States and NATO, and prevent this strong partnership that we have with the Afghans in the region,” he told lawmakers during a Congressional hearing.
Moreover, there is a growing concern in Afghanistan about Iran’s increasing recruitment of Afghan refugees to fight Iran’s sectarian war in Syria and its implications for Afghanistan’s stability. An Iranian official revealed earlier this year that 18,000 Afghans were fighting Sunni rebels in Syria under Iran’s Quds Force command. Known as the Fatemiyoun Division, Afghans now perhaps make the largest single militia unit fighting in Syria. This is happening at a time when scores of Afghan and Pakistani Sunnis are fighting on the opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, including with the Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked groups. It is feared that when the Syrian war is over, these battle-hardened fighters with poisonous sectarian beliefs will return and inflame sectarian strife back home.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.