Fear of ISIS has been a stepping stone for Tehran’s military involvement in Syria and in Iraq and it now seems to be a stepping stone into Afghanistan as well. In short, apart from signing security deals with the Afghan government, Tehran began supplying Taliban militia with weapons and money to fight ISIS in Afghanistan and on the Afghan-Iran border.
The fact that Tehran is supporting a fundamentalist Sunni, and once anti-Shiite, militia is not intuitive, to say the least and 3 questions remain unanswered for now:
- Why is Tehran supporting the Taliban and not the official Afghan armed forces?
- Does Tehran’s support of the Taliban have anything to do with Kabul backing the Saudi war against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen?
- Is funding the Taliban to fight ISIS the real reason for such a drastic move or does Tehran have an alterior motive?
Of course, truthful answers to these questions are overshadowed by the political spins and denials that are already out of control. But answering these questions might be the key to understanding the mindset of the leaders in Tehran.
Why Taliban and not the Afghan Military?
The Taliban seems to be the strangest group to partner with Tehran ever. The radical anti-Shiite stance expressed by the Taliban for decades frequently led Tehran and Taliban to outbreaks of violence which cost many lives on both sides. Meanwhile, the governments of Tehran and Kabul have been busy signing MoU’s and agreements over the last year. So why not fund the Afghan military instead of partisan militia?
Once again, there is no simple answer. Perhaps, Tehran is betting on the Taliban warriors, known for their ferocity, to deal with ISIS. Another reason might be that Tehran is covering its bases just in case the Taliban returns to power. What is certain is that Tehran understands that they can more easily sway a militia group such as the Taliban than the Afghan government which has allegiances with Tehran’s regional arch-enemy, Saudi Arabia.
And lastly, but more practically, Tehran has already mined Afghanistan for “volunteers” to fight for Assad in the civil war in Syria and most of these fighters were once Taliban militia.
What About the Houthis and Saudi Arabia?
The Afghan government gave the Saudis a passive “thumbs-up” in their war against the Houthi rebels in Yemen who are backed by Tehran. Needless to say, the Iranians were not happy. But surprisingly, many Afghans were not happy about supporting the Saudis either.
Tehran’s support for the Taliban may, in the future, be equated to its support of the Houthi rebels if the Taliban’s power increases and manages to overthrow the current government.
To make matters more complicated, the Taliban was traditionally supported by Saudi Arabia and funding the Taliban may be a way for Iran to weaken the militia’s ties with the Saudis.
And lastly, one must remember that although Afghanistan’s president visited Tehran, he has visited Riyadh many more times. Meanwhile, over the past two years, 3 Taliban delegations have been welcomed in Tehran where they met with politicians and IRGC officials.
Fighting ISIS or a Bigger Agenda?
Since NATO stepped out of Afghanistan, the situation there is becoming more volatile with many powers trying to fill in the vacuum. Iran is already a significant part of the Afghan economy, especially in regions bordering Iran: Tehran supplies Afghans with electricity and water as well money and infrastructure to support Shiite factions in Afghanistan.
Supporting the Taliban can also feature as a pressure point in the nuclear deal brewing between Iran and the US. Iran has expressed worries that the US could use Afghanistan as a base from which to attack if the nuclear deal goes bust. In fact, some believe that were a nuclear deal to be signed, Tehran would probably back down from supporting Taliban openly.
But much more importantly, Afghanistan could one day become another Iraq for Iran – a country which is dependent financially, politically and militarily to such an extent that opposing Tehran would be unthinkable. By surrounding itself geographically with allies, Iran can export its Islamic Revolution while at the same time, keep these countries free of any power which wants to attack Iran.