Afganistan: Is Iran Supporting the Taliban?

As Iran faces deep unrest over its disputed election, a perhaps darker question haunts the country: Is the Iranian government funding the Afghan Taliban? If so, it would represent a dramatic reversal of course for the Iranian government, as in the late 1990s it very nearly invaded Afghanistan to toppled the Taliban government after Taliban fighters executed nine Iranian diplomats in Mazar-i Sharif. At the same time, it would also, in the minds of some, represent the continuation of its policies of arming anti-American fighters in Iraq. The blogosphere has been debating this issue for years, but recently the U.S. military levied a fresh series of charges against Tehran.

It is not a charge to be taken lightly, as the Danger Room blog notes:

The Human Terrain System, Army’s social science program, recently investigated this question and found that, in one part of Afghanistan, Iran’s influence is largely limited to “soft power.”

A recent open-source research report prepared by HTS researchers in the United States and obtained by Danger Room probes the history of Iranian activities in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, from humanitarian assistance to direct military aid. As the report puts it, oh-so-blandly: “Iranian influence in Afghanistan, both positive and negative aspects, is a current topic of interest.”

But that's just Bamiyan, a solitary province of Afghanistan already inclined to side with Iran, as Iran helped its inhabitants resist the Taliban during the 1990s. DCRepublican, on the other hand, noticed something a bit more sinister in a report on the rising violence in Afghanistan:

The Army Times article details the recent revelation that certain Farsi speaking insurgent groups have suddenly become equipped with body armor and kevlar helmets as well as vastly improved battlefield tactics and, shockingly, improved marksmanship. Coupled with the huge increase in IED attacks since the fighting season began in the spring, particularly the sharply growing presence of the state-of-the-art EFPs, leads me to believe that the war is about to take an ugly turn for the worse. I think we have a new villain entering the fray in the form of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) who, with or without the consent of the Iranian leadership, have taken it upon themselves to institute a major policy shift with regard to Afghanistan.

And Christopher Holton, Vice President with the Center for Security Policy, writing at Terror Trends Bulletin, feels it's incontrovertible proof of Iran's perfidy:

ran has also aided the Taliban’s greatest ally, Al Qaeda, another Salafi Sunni terrorist organization. Many continue to dispute that Iran sponsors Al Qaeda, but the facts are out there for analysis, as yours truly wrote in National Review back in March 2008. argues otherwise, however:

The big question: is this a deliberate government policy, as Iranian support to the insurgents in Iraq was? Or is this coincidental or rogue activity within southeastern Iran?

Couple things to keep in mind here: the Taliban fighting in Farah and Nimroz are not the same who are fighting in Khost, Kapisa, or Kunar. There is a significantly stronger presence of drug smuggling in the area, and Iran does not act in a single unified manner…

We’re pushing two straight years now of accusations that Iran is funding and arming the Taliban, yet precious little evidence ever makes it into the public. That doesn’t mean it’s not happening, but right now there is evidence of Iranian-made weapons in Farah, Herat, and Nimroz, and the assumption that they have been deliberately supplied by Iran.

I don’t mean to defend Iran, but that’s not really evidence of interference. There might be more in classified sources that we just don’t hear in the newspapers. Either way, arming the Taliban would be such an incredible risk for Iran… that there should be some sort of evidence to bolster the claim that Iran is exacerbating the Taliban. But in either case the continuing accusations against Iran, without evidence any government is willing to disclose, cannot be helpful.

Juan Cole also casts doubt on the charge against Iran:

The US military report that it intercepted a cache of Iranian arms intended for the Taliban was analyzed on the Pakistani television station, GEO, by regional experts. They found the idea that the Iranian government is sending arms to the Taliban implausible, but suggested other reasons for which the Taliban might get hold of Iranian weaponry.

Scott Horton similarly disbelieves the story that Iran is supplying arms to the Taliban:

Easy as it is these days to impute all sorts of dastardly motives to the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the various Iranian rogue elements, this doesn’t quite make sense. Iran has no love lost for the United States, to be sure, but neither has it ever had decent relations with the Taliban, who made a point of persecuting Shiia Muslims in Afghanistan when they ran the country. If Iran has had objectives in Afghanistan, then, it’s been to hold the Taliban in check and to protect the Shiia minority. And for the moment at least that aligns pretty well with American policy.

Indeed, there is an interesting partisan angle to the whole debate: the right-wing blogs seem willing to believe in Iran's evil with little evidence, but the left-wing blogs seem to feel it is unclear exactly why Iran would do such a thing (and it's unclear if there is sufficient evidence to convince them). It is a debate that spills out into other things beyond just weapons shipments. Bill Roggio, who founded the Long War Journal, a blog-cum-news service, argued recently that a Taliban commander in a Shia-majority province of Afghanistan was directly funded by Iran:

US strike kills Iranian-backed Taliban commander in western Afghanistan

The US military killed a senior Taliban commander with links to Iran's Qods Forces during an airstrike in western Afghanistan… The US military said Mustafa had connections to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force, the external special operations division that is tasked with supporting the Khomeinist Islamist revolution., however, cast doubt on that charge:

It's interesting to explore the allegations that there might be elements within Iran who might support portions of the insurgency in Afghanistan. As Iran watchers have observed, there is often precious little aside from assertions that the link exists, with nothing concrete any official is willing to say publicly.

What a delicious Catch-22: the U.S. government might have all this evidence that Iran is “backing” the Taliban… but won't actually tell anyone what it is. It's too sensitive to explain, but not too sensitive to allege. Right.

Indeed, continues, the U.S. military has been careful to say that it's probably not official Iranian policy:

It’s also interesting that other news sources stress that Afghan officials don’t know whether Mustafa is directly supported by Iran, and even U.S. officials say they only suspect involvement with individuals and aren’t describing an official relationship.

Interesting, indeed. There remains no resolution, no consensus or settled narrative in American blogs about Iran's involvement in Afghanistan—the issue is, perhaps, too partisan. What is curiously absent is a discussion about this issue in any English language blogs written from Afghanistan. They have been virtually silent about it, which raises the question of what the Persian blogs might be talking about (when they are not discussing the election, that is).


  • j. kactuz

    Interesting article and certainly food for thought.
    On one hand there is no love lost between Shia Iran and Sunni Taliban.
    On the other hand, any grief that the Iranians can do to the US and Afhgan forces is plausible.
    On the other hand, as mentioned, The Taliban persecutes Shia so it would be Shia helping Sunni to kill Shia.
    On the other hand, helping the Taliban gives Iran influence in Taliban controlled areas of Afhganistan and Pakistan. Maybe one day they see a chance to restore the great Persian empires of the past that ruled from India to the red sea.
    On the other hand, if supporting the Taliban in Pakistan they might make the folks in Islamabad forget India for a while.
    On the other hand, oh phooey… middle eastern politics drive us all mad….

  • Its obvious that Tehran has been muddying the waters in Afghanistan. They would never want success and stability in Afghanistan credited to the United States.

  • KentS

    Thanks for a balanced piece; rare in our current hyper-partisan world. Informative and you really made an effort to use non-inflammatory language and adequately quoted information from both sides.

    I read A LOT of these things and I wish they all were as honest.

  • tell me what is all about? Gordon brown says it is to help stop terrorism in uk. He educates these people in the uk to promote terrorisum. I am a grandmother who lost a brother of 22 years of age through a tragic accident many years ago. I see these coffins returning here with young men, god do I feel for these families. Get our young lads home and deport anyone suspected of helping the taliban, just a suspect, get them out of our country and let them fight as they have done for thousands of years. Keep our young boys out of it. Send the shit mps to earn thier expenses.

  • Siddiq

    Iran has always been a meddler in the regional affairs, in the recent history Iraq had a full Iranian attention and now it is Afghanistan’s turn.
    For their advantage and to divert the world attention from itself Iran will always keep the water muddy in the neighboring Afghanistan.
    With the hands of Shiite Hazaras they are building mosques, universities and other institutions to promote the Iranian culture in Afghanistan, they even played a major role in the newly modified family law that has passed the parliament of Afghanistan. As they have a strong Hezbollah in Lebanon nothing will deter them from funding strong Shiite Hazaras in Afghanistan; not because they care about Hazaras but it is all to have a working puppet and a strong footstep in the country. They need to be dealt with sooner than latter, otherwise, we will have a major problem as we did during the cold war.

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