Iran’s Shifting Afghan Alliances Don’t Fit Easy Narratives

Tehran’s goals are pragmatic—and may be in line with Washington’s.

Afghan returnees after arriving from Iran
Afghan returnees after arriving from Iran in Herat, Afghanistan, on Jan. 1, 2019. Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images

The assassination last month of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the elite Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has set off a wave of debates in the United States about Iranian foreign policy. Tehran’s opportunistic and pragmatic foreign policy does not always fit neatly into contemporary left- or right-wing narratives—especially when it comes to Afghanistan, where Suleimani played a critical role.

Left and progressive commentators in the United States position Iran as an “anti-imperialist” state resisting American influence in the Middle East, as has been echoed by various supposed anti-war groups demonstrating across the West. They claim Suleimani was creating regional stability by combating the Islamic State and protecting Shiite communities. But being opposed to the Islamic State is a low bar—opposition to the militant organization has unified all armed actors in the region from the U.S.-led coalition to the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Armed Forces, the Iranian military, and even some hard-line Islamist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

Right-wing pundits, in contrast, continue to claim that Iran is a part of the “axis of evil” imagined by former U.S. President George W. Bush. This vision of a consistently malign Iran has persisted in the United States since the 1979 revolution, but it bears little resemblance to reality. Iranian policy is ruthless, but it is also flexible and pragmatic, as its history in Afghanistan shows.

At a press conference held on Jan. 9 by the IRGC Aerospace Force commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh stood in front of the familiar flags of the IRGC, the Aerospace Force, Hezbollah, and Hamas, as well as those of lower-profile Shiite militias including the Houthis, the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, the Pakistani Liwa Zainebiyoun, and the Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun. But Iran has ties with a wide range of nonstate actors—including the Taliban.

In the late 1970s the situation in Asia for the Soviet Union was grim. Infighting after Iran’s anti-monarchist revolution left the Khomeinist faction in power and in Pakistan Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq ousted the secular leftist government to form an Islamist military dictatorship. The Moscow-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) had come to power in a sudden coup and was struggling to maintain control between revolts across the country and internal factionalism. In December 1979, the Politburo opted for an invasion to prop up the floundering PDPA government, fearful Afghanistan would become another Islamic republic.

The fractured Afghan Muslim resistance to the atheist PDPA was licking their wounds across the Afghan-Pakistan border until the Soviets invaded and united all sectors of society in the popular armed mujahideen movement with calls to jihad against the foreign occupation. Iran financed the Shiite mujahideen in Afghanistan’s central highlands, and the United States worked with Pakistan and Gulf states to bankroll the Sunni mujahideen operating political offices out of Peshawar, Pakistan.

Once the USSR fell, Washington’s funding evaporated. Tehran continued to support Persian-speaking Sunni and Shiite warlords throughout the civil war that followed. In 1994, the growing Taliban movement quickly forced Iran’s allies into exile, and Tehran worried that the militant Sunni group would spill over its border. In response, Suleimani led Iran’s initiative to support the Afghan warlords fighting the Taliban from Tajikistan.

When the Americans arrived in 2001, they coordinated and fought beside IRGC forces on the ground. Iran and the United States worked closely together to secure the 2001 Bonn Agreement forming the Hamid Karzai government in Afghanistan, so it came as a shock when George W. Bush demonized Iran in his State of the Union address in 2002—especially since Iran’s government forcefully condemned the 9/11 attacks.

Afghan analysts and military figures have frequently alleged Iranian involvement with the Taliban since 2007. In 2016, Iran’s ambassador to Afghanistan, Mohammad Reza Bahrami, revealed that Tehran had lines of communication with the Taliban. This news came despite Bahrami’s previous denial of involvement. Then Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif confirmed that his country had contacts with the Taliban in early 2019.

It was only in 2017 that Afghan Army Gen. Mohammad Sharif Yaftali confirmed that the military discovered documents providing evidence of Iranian collaboration. After the city of Farah was briefly held by the Taliban in 2018, Afghan analysts and officials asserted that Iran was behind the offensive. Interviews with Taliban commanders such as Mullah Rasool reveal that parts of the Taliban are linked to Tehran.

The Taliban governing structure is spread across several leadership councils, or shuras, including the Mashhad Shura in Iran’s western province of Khorasan-e Razavi. The Mashhad Shura initially opened as a liaison office between the Taliban and IRGC in 2007. It became a regional command center for western Afghanistan in 2011. The growth of the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) coincided with the recognition of the Mashhad office as a full-fledged shura by Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada. Overseeing this relationship between the Taliban and the IRGC is the Ansar Corps, a group established by Suleimani and once commanded by his successor, Esmail Qaani. Reportedly, at least four bases in Iran were created for training Taliban fighters in exchange for increased attacks on U.S.-led NATO forces and ISKP.

As the Taliban have softened their rhetoric toward Shiites in Afghanistan in recent years, ISKP has increased attacks targeting the Shiite minority. Iran views itself as a defender of Shiite Muslims internationally, and this shift provided the space for Tehran to forge closer ties with the previously highly sectarian Taliban.

Iran views the Islamic State as a threat to its existence and is willing to deal with the Taliban to fight it—a bargain overseen by Suleimani before he died. Taliban relations with Iran and Russia also improved under previous Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour before his death. This was in part because Mansour wanted to counter Pakistani influence.

From his interviews with senior Taliban cadres, the Taliban expert Antonio Giustozzi says that part of Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah’s personal power is linked to his support from Iran and Russia. Iran showed its willingness to make use of these ties to effect intra-Afghan dialogues when Tehran hosted the Taliban to discuss the peace process in November 2019.

There is one other aspect of Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan that has often been overlooked. Iran began recruiting Shiite Afghan refugees by appealing to their religious obligations to jihad against the Islamic State to create the Fatemiyoun Brigade to fight for Assad in Syria. When families refused to send their young men to war, recruiters resorted to bribes, coercion, and threats to conscript refugees, including minors. While they did fight the Islamic State, the Fatemiyoun was also sent as the front line in the battle for Aleppo that crushed the city’s collection of rebel groups.

Suleimani’s recruitment of Afghan children into the Fatemiyoun Brigade as literal cannon fodder for Iran’s regional ambitions led many in Afghanistan to dub him as a “murderer of their children.” That cruelty, too, is part of Iran’s legacy in Afghanistan.

Iran’s shifting alliances are more driven by pragmatism than any sense of global mission or permanent antagonism—as Suleimani’s career demonstrated. In Afghanistan, Tehran has walked the sectarian line and crossed the sectarian divide, worked with and against the United States, played both a covert role in defeating the Soviet Union and exacerbated internal conflicts—all to ensure the permanence of the Islamic Republic of Iran as a political project.

Though it would be absurd to describe Iran as a stabilizing force in the region considering its role in ongoing genocides in Syria and Yemen, in the specific case of Afghanistan, Iran is eager for a regional partner, and the Taliban are eager for legitimacy. Their relationship will play a crucial role in building a precarious foundation for lasting security as the United States exits the region.

Mohammed Harun Arsalai is a writer and co-founder of independent media project Documenting Afghanistan.

Wil Patrick is a doctoral student in the Critical Geographies Research Lab at the University of Victoria. He is a political geographer researching local self-governance in Afghanistan and monument controversies in North America.

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