Foreign Policy ran an EXCLUSIVE report on Sunday to the effect that Iran and the Taliban are now collaborating in Afghanistan. They’re sending money, ammo, and small arms (guns and RPGs) over the border to support Taliban fighters. This is BIG NEWS because, obviously, any aid the Taliban get will naturally make it harder for the Afghan government to either soundly defeat them or at least degrade them enough to force them to accept a peace deal. But for some reason it’s also being reported as some sort of big, paradigm-shifting “man bites dog” story, because Iran’s history with the Taliban is anything but friendly. Back when the Taliban ran Afghanistan, Iran used to supply aid to the Northern Alliance, the mostly Tajik-Uzbek resistance movement opposed to Taliban control. Then, after 9/11, Tehran famously rounded up al-Qaeda operatives attempting to flee Afghanistan and dropped them right back into the war zone, helped form a new Afghan government to take over from the Taliban, and provided the US with intelligence on the Taliban. The Iranians wanted to work with the US against the Taliban at that time, but then “Axis of Evil” happened and that possibility went out the window.
So, yeah, Iran and the Taliban used to be enemies. But that was 15 years and one major new threat ago. Nowadays Iran’s (and everybody else’s) big concern is ISIS, and consequently Tehran is willing to work with whomever offers it the possibility of stifling ISIS’s growth in Afghanistan and protecting Iran’s eastern border:
But Iran now believes that the Taliban pose much less of a threat than the Islamic State, whose expanding affiliate in Afghanistan is thought by U.S. officials to have as many as 3,000 fighters. President Barack Obama, who had once promised to end America’s longest war before leaving office, has instead given the Pentagon the green light to ramp up its air campaign against the Islamic State fighters inside Afghanistan. Between the beginning of January and the end of March, U.S. warplanes carried out roughly 100 strikes in Afghanistan, the vast bulk in the eastern province of Nangarhar, an Islamic State stronghold.
Tehran is going even further, and enlisting elements of the Taliban to slow the Islamic State’s expansion inside Afghanistan and prevent militants from the group — which espouses a violently anti-Shiite ideology — from crossing into Iran.
“The Iranians are already trying to secure their immediate borders towards Afghanistan against ISIS penetration by working together with various groups — warlords [and] Taliban — along their own borders to create a buffer zone,” the European Union’s special representative to Afghanistan, Ambassador Franz-Michael Mellbin, said in a recent interview. “They are already working on this.”
This makes perfect sense from the Iranian perspective, even if it’s not especially smart policy. The only way to remove ISIS from the equation permanently in Afghanistan is for the Afghan government to finally establish authority and stability over the entire country, and, again, empowering the Taliban works counter to that goal. But I’m not sure you can blame the Iranians for giving up on the idea of Kabul ever getting control over the whole country; it’s been about 14 years and there’s still no sign of it happening. So from their perspective, an empowered Taliban is better than nothing.
So I don’t really understand why the tenor of the coverage on this story seems to be one of surprise. I especially don’t understand it when this exact story was reported by the Wall Street Journal almost a year ago, at which time I wrote pretty much the same thing I just wrote here. I guess the new element ties into the recent assassination of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour. Mansour’s family reportedly lives in Iran now, and he’d been freely and regularly traveling between Iran and Pakistan before that drone got him. That is newsworthy, but it’s not much more than an addendum to the already-established Iran-Taliban relationship. The enemy of my enemy might not exactly be my friend, but you can’t blame me for at least working with him a little bit.