Tehran and the Taliban have been at each other’s throats for decades, but the Islamic State’s rise has the two historical enemies teaming up like never before.
Iran is working with the Taliban to set up a buffer zone along its border with Afghanistan to keep out the Islamic State, the latest sign of how the rise of the Syrian-based terror group is turning longtime rivals into uneasy allies.
Tehran’s growing push to secure its 572-mile border with Afghanistan, which hasn’t previously been reported, marks a significant shift for the Shiite power. Iran had long seen the Taliban, a militant Sunni group, as a direct threat. Tehran also provided weapons and other assistance to the Northern Alliance during its war with the Taliban in the years before the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
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.”
Mellbin said Iran’s willingness to set aside its historic enmity toward the Taliban stems, in part, from its intensifying rivalry with Saudi Arabia. The ambassador, who regularly meets with top Iranian officials, said Tehran believes that the Islamic State is effectively functioning as an arm of the Saudi Arabian government.
“Iran will interpret any move by ISIS as a front for forward-leaning aggressive behavior by Saudi Arabia,” he said. “If ISIS emerges along their eastern borders, the Iranians will feel that Saudi Arabia is creating a second front.”
The buffer zone covers a potentially expansive amount of terrain, with a person familiar with the matter saying that it stretches from Helmand province in the south of Afghanistan all the way to Kunduz province in the northern part of the country. The Taliban controls large parts of both provinces.
A U.S. intelligence official declined to comment on the nature of Iran’s cooperation with the Taliban, but said that “given Iran’s efforts against ISIL elements in Syria and Iraq, it would not be surprising if Iran is concerned with retribution from ISIL affiliates, including ISIL’s Khorasan branch.” Khorasan is the name the Islamic State uses for its militants in Afghanistan.
Two Western officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Tehran was providing Taliban forces along its border with money and small amounts of relatively low-grade weaponry like machine guns, ammunition, and rocket-propelled grenades. “It’s not a game-changer, but it’s not insignificant,” the official said.
Washington shares Tehran’s eagerness to fight the Islamic State affiliates inside Afghanistan, but worries that some of the money and weapons Iran is providing to the Taliban could one day be used against American troops. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the United States wants “Iran to work directly and constructively with the Afghan government and the international community in support of Afghanistan’s stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”
“No government should be providing the Taliban material support,” Kirby added.
The stepped-up cooperation between the Taliban and Iran is the latest strange bedfellows alliance created by the rise of the Islamic State. In Syria, the United States is effectively allied with President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against the group, bombing Islamic State targets from the air while Assad’s forces fight them on the ground. A similar dynamic is playing out in neighboring Iraq, where U.S. warplanes have taken the lead in the air war against the Islamic State while Iranian paramilitary forces, backed by Shiite militias directly armed and supported by Tehran, have helped slow the Islamic State’s territorial gains and begun to push the militants out of the areas they control.
Speaking at a Special Operations conference in Tampa, Florida, this week, White House chief counterterrorism official Lisa Monaco said the Islamic State had lost 45 percent of its territory in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria. She said American, European, and Arab Special Operations forces were preparing a new offensive against the de facto Islamic State capital in Raqqa, Syria.
Afghanistan represents a different challenge altogether. Its border with Iran is lengthy and porous, theoretically giving Islamic State fighters multiple ways of entering the Shiite country to mount new attacks. And the Islamic State has long made clear that it wants to do so: In late 2014, Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani said the militants were ready to “transform Iran into pools of blood” and described Iran, actively fighting the Islamic State in two countries, as the Islamic State’s “bitterest enemy.”
Fortunately for Tehran, it has a willing partner in the fight against the Islamic State: the Taliban. The two extremist groups have been battling each other for more than a year, with the Taliban devoting more than 1,000 of its special forces to the fight. The BBC reported last December that the two groups had been clashing throughout eastern Afghanistan, leaving dozens dead on both sides. At least 10 Taliban fighters were reportedly beheaded by the Islamic State, which is also thought to have assassinated the Taliban’s shadow governor in Nangarhar province.
In another sign of the increasingly close ties between the two longtime adversaries, Taliban chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was killed in Pakistan by an American drone last weekend after leaving Iran, where his family lives. U.S. officials say that Mullah Mansour regularly and freely traveled into and out of Iran.
Still, Tehran’s partnership with the Taliban in the Islamic State fight represents a remarkable about-face for Iran. Tehran came close to an all-out war with Afghanistan in 1998 after fighters from the Taliban executed eight Iranian diplomats in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a popular Shiite pilgrimage site.
That changed after the 9/11 terror attacks. Iran had long provided military and financial support to the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s biggest battlefield foe. Iranian diplomats worked closely with the United States at the 2001 Bonn Conference to create Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban government. Tehran even provided Washington with maps and other data about Taliban positions and supply networks after U.S. forces swept into Afghanistan at the end of 2001.
Barnett Rubin, a former senior U.S. diplomat with years of experience in Afghanistan, said Iran’s strategic views of the utility of the Taliban began to change in 2007 after the United States signed a partnership with Kabul allowing American forces to stay in the country.
“Iran had to calculate how to support the government while opposing the U.S. — they considered permanent U.S. bases in Afghanistan a permanent strategic threat to Iran,” Rubin said. He added that Tehran opened lines of communication with specific Taliban commanders to encourage them to strike American military targets there.
“When I mentioned this at a [diplomatic] meeting, one of the senior Iranians denied it, vociferously saying Iran was totally against the Taliban,” Rubin said. “I said that Iranians were not simple-minded people who can have only one policy at a time, and he laughed and did not try to contradict me.”
By Yochi Dreazen