Analysis: Iran has supported the Taliban’s insurgency since late 2001

On May 21, an American drone strike ended Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour’s reign as the Taliban’s leader. As The Wall Street Journal first reported, US intelligence officials tracked Mansour to Iran, where he was visiting his family, and then targeted his car as he crossed back over the border into Pakistan. Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman, Hossein Jaber Ansari, quickly denied this version of events, claiming that his country “welcomes any measure in line with bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.”

However, Zabihullah Mujahid (the Taliban’s chief spokesman) has conceded that Mansour was indeed inside Iran. Dawn quotes Mujahid as saying the Taliban chief crossed the border because of “ongoing battle obligations,” adding that Mansour made multiple “unofficial trips” to Iran.

While many of the details concerning Mansour’s travels remain murky, his presence inside Iranian territory shortly before his death isn’t surprising. Iran has a long history of backing the Taliban’s insurgency against US and allied forces in Afghanistan. Indeed, the relationship between the two former foes is one of the most misunderstood and oft-overlooked aspects of the 9/11 wars.

Iran and the Taliban nearly went to war in 1998 after senior Taliban commanders slaughtered Iranian diplomats and other Shiites in Mazar-i-Sharif. But by late 2001, as the Americans prepared to topple the Taliban’s government, the situation changed dramatically. Outwardly, the Iranians acted as if they just wanted to help rebuild Afghanistan. Western diplomats have praised Iran for its role in the Dec. 2001 meetings in Bonn, Germany, where a post-Taliban government was established. But there is much more to this story. Just before the American-led invasion of Afghanistan two months earlier, the Iranians cut a secret deal with Mullah Omar’s representatives.

One of Omar’s most trusted lieutenants, Khairullah Khairkhwa, helped broker an agreement with the Iranians in Oct. 2001. We know this because Khairkhwa was captured in Pakistan in early 2002, transferred to Guantanamo and then told American officials all about it.

A district court in Washington, DC denied Khairkhwa’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus in 2011. The court found that Khairkhwa “repeatedly admitted” that after the 9/11 attacks “he served as a member of a Taliban envoy that met clandestinely with senior Iranian officials to discuss Iran’s offer to provide the Taliban with weapons and other military support in anticipation of imminent hostilities with U.S. coalition forces.” [See LWJ report, DC district court denies former Taliban governor’s habeas petition.]

According to the court, the Iranians told Khairkhwa and his Taliban delegation that they could provide shoulder-fired missiles (SAM-7’s) and “track all movements by the United States.” In addition, the Iranians “offered to open their border to Arabs entering Afghanistan.” Iran did just that, allowing some al Qaeda members and others to escape the American onslaught.

Joint Task Force – Guantanamo (JTF-GTMO), which oversees the detention facility, deemed Khairkhwa a “high” risk to the U.S. and its allies, in part, because of his dealings with the Iranians. Despite JTF-GTMO’s assessment, and the DC court’s rejection of his habeas petition, Khairkhwa was transferred to Qatar in 2014. He was one of the five Taliban commanders exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

During the twelve years Khairkhwa was detained in Cuba, Iran continued to collude with the Taliban. The Defense, State and Treasury Departments have all documented the relationship.

In its “Annual Report on [the] Military Power of Iran,” which was delivered to Congress in 2012, the Department of Defense explained that Iran’s support for the Taliban was part of its “grand strategy” to challenge “US influence.” Although there was “historic enmity” between the two sides, the Pentagon said, support for the Taliban “complements Iran’s strategy of backing many groups to maximize its influence while also undermining US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) objectives by fomenting violence.”

“Since 2006,” the State Department noted in its Country Reports on Terrorism for 2012, “Iran has arranged arms shipments to select Taliban members, including small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, and plastic explosives.” In 2012, the Iranians “shipped a large number of weapons to Kandahar, Afghanistan, aiming to increase its influence in this key province.”

Foggy Bottom added that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF) “trained Taliban elements on small unit tactics, small arms, explosives, and indirect fire weapons, such as mortars, artillery, and rockets.”

A series of Treasury Department terror designations illuminate the relationship between the IRGC-QF and the Taliban.

In August 2010, Treasury designated two IRGC-QF commanders as terrorists for providing “financial and material support to the Taliban.” A special unit in the IRGC-QF known as the Ansar Corps is responsible for orchestrating attacks in Afghanistan. Nearly two years later, in Mar. 2012, Treasury identified IRGC-QF General Gholamreza Baghbani as a narcotics trafficker. At the time, Baghbani was based in Zahedan, Iran, which is near the border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. From this strategically situated crossroads, Baghbani allegedly oversaw an operation that “moved weapons to the Taliban,” while smuggling “heroin precursor chemicals through the Iranian border” and facilitating “shipments of opium into Iran.” This guns-for-drugs scheme directly fueled the Taliban’s insurgency, according to Treasury.

Treasury wasn’t finished. In February 2014, three other IRGC-QF officials and one of their associates were designated for plotting terrorist acts in Afghanistan and also using “intelligence operations as tools of influence against” the Afghan government. Iran’s duplicitous scheme meant that the IRGC-QF was “currying favor” with some Afghan politicians while targeting other officials for assassination.

In the weeks immediately following 9/11, the Iranian regime and the Taliban met in the shadows. In the 14-plus years since, their relationship has become overt. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2012 that the Taliban has set up an office in Zahedan, which is also a well-known al Qaeda hub. Taliban officials have repeatedly and openly attended meetings in Tehran. And other sources confirm that Iran has often provided the Taliban with arms and training.

Contrary to what Ansari claims, the Iranians don’t want “peace and stability” in Afghanistan – at least not at the expense of achieving their other objectives. They want to force the US out and expand their influence. Given Iran’s enduring partnership with the Taliban, forged in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Mansour’s trips to Iran may have been “unofficial,” but they are definitely unsurprising.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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17 Comments

  • Fourthint says:

    Time for the imperialists to pack their bags and go home as you have been defeated once again. Afghanistan is a free country and any free Afghan who fights against the neo-colonial white supremacist & patriarchal enterprise that is the United States and its Kabul regime is a hero.

    • Devendra K Sood says:

      You must be smoking pure Hasish because Afghanistan has been invaded several times and was ruled by different conquerors overe centuries. We Americans are NOT conquerors and did not invade that Crap Hole called Afghanistan. Remember wehn teh Soviets were raping your owmen and children we saved your bacon.

    • Fred says:

      Furthermore, you attacked us. You brought this down on your own heads. Next time don’t pick a fight with people stronger than you.

      We’ll go home when we get bored, and not before.

    • Michael E Piston says:

      The Afghan government was freely elected by its own people. The Taliban have no claim to rule except through military force. If the Taliban really has the support of the Afghan people then why is it in unwilling to seek power through free elections as the Maoists have done in Nepal or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua? The obvious explanation is because they know they will lose. Any Afghan who fights to substitute the will of his own people for that of self-selected gangsters is a criminal.

  • Arjuna says:

    Great writing in that last sentence, Mr. J.

    How much of our willingness to look away from AQ-Iran cooperation comes right from the top? The “Night Stalker” ValJar even lived there. She is the one who convinced POTUS to give away the farm with the JCPOA. It was much more important for his (hahaha) “legacy” that he under-negotiate an unfavorable agreement while not rocking the boat on CT issues like Tehran giving refuge to senior-most AQ members. To the Persians credit, though, they do keep the critters on a very tight leash there.

  • ulises says:

    THE IRANIAN PARAMILITARY FORCE THE “PASDARAN”. SUPPORT THE TALIBAN FORCES. OTHER FORCE FINANCED AND ARMED FROM TEHERAN.SINCE 2001.

  • Pat Stevens says:

    Excellent and cogent synopsis. Much appreciate connecting the dots.

  • Stephen A. Carlton says:

    Question: Is Iran where the Taliban gets the parts to build IEDs or is it Pakistan? They have to get those parts and explosives from some where. Why can’t we track it and stop it? Appreciate an answer. I am a vet, former USAF security officer. Thanks.

  • Vietnam 69 71 says:

    Not only is Iran supporting the Taliban but so apparently is Mr. Obama

  • Joseph M Martin says:

    Sorry, I don’t believe anything that U.S. intelligence says about Iran.

  • Hardly surprising that Iran wants to destabilise Afghanistan and the US of A’s influence in the region.
    IIRC the Iranian embassy in Kabul is only second in size to the US Embassy which may indicate the importance Iran places upon Afghanistan. It certainly had as many antennas! I would guess it has a lot more staff, although they probably don’t all reside there.

    Yes, I could imagine that the Iranians would be currying favour with some politicians whilst assassinating others, let’s not forget the US use and support of Dostum in the north during the invasion and the large amounts of cash given to othe warlords in a divide and conquer tactic that worked very well. Using drug money to help pay for arms? Isn’t that a direct correlation with the Iran/Contra way of funding terror? Seems the Iranians have been learning a few tricks off their US enemies.

    Cynasim aside, the Taliban and Iran are not good bed partners in the long term(or are they?) Pakistan are the major supporter and both Pakistan and Iran aren’t the best of friends. If they were, Iran would have a nuclear weapons capability, that’s for sure. No, both the Taliban and Iran are using this short term partnership as the main reason of undermining the US effort in stabalising Afghanistan. Their ultimate goal will be the removal of any government left once the US finally leaves Kabul. Unfortunately, that country is too well placed for anyone in the area to see it flourish as it did in the 60’s and early 70’s. A destabilised Afghanistan makes for a destabilised northern border in Pakistan. India prefers this and no doubt adds sauce to the pot, whilst stirring slowly. Iran would also like to see this whilst trying to maintain it’s own influence over it’s own extended border in that area. The Talibans main source of income, once all who need their cut have taken it is now the Opium fields and the supply of heroin and the sale of stolen and surplus arms. During my stay in Afghanistan the world had a severe shortage of medical grade Diamorphine Hydrochloride. It would have been prudent, rather than fitting washing machine and fridges into schools with no electricity etc to approach the farmers and buy that crop from them en masse. When then the brother of their then president has over 9 tons of opium resin hidden in his official compound it kind of tells you something.

    Now, the new Taliban leader has mentioned that they will possibly extend their terror operations. The Taliban may have decided that, if the US wants to ‘kill us, then we must now extend our operations to other overseas areas of interest to kill them.’ Global Jihadism is in fashion these days. They might not have the technical expertise in global terror operations but if Iran has any real relationship with the Taliban and, more importantly the intent, you can guarantee that they will make sure any shortfall in capability is made up. All this is theory, of course. Actions speak louder than words. Time will tell….

    As the Taliban have and will keep saying…

    ‘The Americans have the watches, WE have the time’.

    • kimball says:

      It’s a good saying but the Talibs are in the hands of the men with the hourglass. Take your pic, druglords – Pak Int. Arab Int. transportmafia, Pahstun major tribes. Allah is way back in the line here.

  • feldman says:

    I dont doubt the validity of facts here. However, this civil strife between Muslim sects is not business of the West. Our intervention since WWI has dragged us into their endless hagglign about interpetations of the Koran, and caused thousands of casualties. On Memorial Day, we must realize our soldiers as well as Brtish and French soldiers have died for nothing but the empty fantasies of so called diplomats and strategic experts who never got their hands dirty.

  • s. feldman says:

    These civfl wars waste Western lives. Let the intersectarian wars between the Muslims rage; let the West focus on internal security.

    • K Maag says:

      More “creative destruction”… ??? … Hell, no…

      The unfortunate doctrine seems to have reached a critical point where it just might burn itself up, at least…

  • kimball says:

    One construct dots and then connects them. Some say Iran fingered Mansour, otherwise how come so suddenly finding a high HVT in Balutchistan?

    New ports will change the game a lot, Khyber a lot less important in ten years time. Why the West couldn’t do a deal ten yrs ago to buy up the complete opium crop is beyond me. A thousand times cheaper than the current mess.
    Here is new headache for Pakis:

    http://www.dawn.com/news/1261839/former-nadra-official-arrested-in-connection-with-mullah-mansour-id-fia

  • JC Spring says:

    The real facts are our men and women fought in both Iraq and the Afghan and the Iranians have been pulling the levers since the beginning in both theatres, from the early EFP’s in Iraq through to intelligence actions underway in Aghanistan, Syria and Iraq today.
    It is shameful that political appeasement takes the place of honour. The WW2 leadership of the Western world must be turning in their graves. Obviously there is an algorithm these days dictating what a life and what a wounded vet is worth.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis