Brace for the ‘Iranian Taliban’ in Afghanistan

About three weeks ago, the Afghan intelligence arrested a senior Taliban commander moments after he crossed the border from Iran to Afghanistan. The smooth capture stunned the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force (IRGC-QF), which until now has not faced difficulties in transporting Taliban fighters across the border. The arrest did not register in the American media, but it could be the latest sign for how Iran is positioning Afghanistan to impact U.S. politics ahead of the November election, with reports of shifting of some of its proxy fighters from Syria to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. More importantly, the incident signifies Iran’s role as the tip of the spear in regional efforts to hasten an American defeat in Afghanistan.

The capture of Qari Shafi, also known as Hafiz Omeri, Taliban’s military chief for Herat province, was significant enough for the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Intelligence (NDS), to take the rare step of issuing a press statement after the bust, on May 23 (two days after the arrest). It also marked a new level of vigilance by the Afghan intelligence along Iran’s border, and a quiet escalation in tensions between Kabul and Tehran. One thing is for sure: the development would force a change in the operations manual of the IRGC-QF along the border region after years of playing it easy.

The top commander traveled in an IRGC-QF car to the border, and his movement was probably monitored by the Afghans. The IRGC has an informal office for the Afghan Taliban in Mashhad, Iran’s second largest city, not far from the Afghan border. And with the IRGC recruiting some of the Iran-based Sunni Afghan refugees to bolster Taliban ranks, it is likely that Kabul is keeping an eye on the activities of Taliban commanders inside Iran. Indeed, the arrest comes on the heels of Afghanistan expelling two Iranian diplomats over their ties to intelligence operations and membership in the IRGC.

Iran’s immediate objectives in using the Taliban in Afghanistan include retaining influence in Afghan peace talks, stopping Afghan hydropower projects, blocking the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline (which will cross Herat), and generally using its Afghan muscle as a bargaining chip in any future negotiations with United States and the West. Afghanistan is an emerging bargaining chip for Iran’s Khomeinist ruling clique, much like Yemen, Gulf, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza. And, unlike the others in this list, it is an unused one, so far.

But more important is Iran’s larger objective that has received little international attention: ensuring that Afghanistan is firmly placed in the Iran-Russia orbit in case of a complete American disengagement and withdrawal, instead of being dominated by Pakistan and Arab countries, as was the case before 2001. None of this is surprising since Tehran had worked with Moscow (and New Delhi) to support Afghan factions in the civil war of 1990s and up until 9/11.

Qari Shafi, who is also a member of the Taliban’s local leadership council in Herat, left the Tapa Seyah base in Khorasan province in Iran, reportedly one of the IRGC-run camps. At the base, he met Iranian officials who tasked him to sabotage the strategic Afghan Pashdan dam, conduct assassinations in Herat, and generally keep the highways in the Afghan province unsafe, the NDS statement said.

Iran has been using Afghan water for free since the collapse of the Afghan state after the Soviet invasion in 1979, and has become reliant on this source for its parched eastern provinces. The new Afghan hydropower projects will regulate the downriver supply to Iran. Improved Afghan irrigation will also mean the revival of Afghan agriculture, threatening the dominance of Iranian produce supply in the Afghan market. Additionally, the Iranian port of Chabahar is being positioned to play a key role in getting Afghanistan off the American and Pakistani dependency, the two countries responsible for the current Afghan peace process.

The assassinations and highway attacks orchestrated by the Taliban at IRGC’s behest keep the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) weak and disoriented in Herat. The managed chaos keeps Herat and the western provinces destabilized enough to make TAPI and dam projects unsafe. (Similar tactics have been attributed to IRGC-linked cells busted in Bahrain, Karachi/Pakistan, and Tajikistan.)

The reported partial withdrawal (or redeployment) of Iranian proxies from Syria to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the increased Iranian activity on the Iran-Afghanistan border, shows that Tehran is increasingly likely to use Afghanistan as an avenue for retaliation against the U.S. government ahead of its presidential election in November, one more pressure card against the Trump administration.

Post-9/11, as America, Pakistan, and Kabul quarreled, Iran has systematically cultivated unprecedented influence in Afghanistan, and did it discreetly and methodically, making inroads into Afghan media, government, and politics. The IRGC’s support has been crucial in Taliban’s ability to overrun key provinces in western Afghanistan. The IRGC-QF recruited a British military officer attached to Sir David Richards, then commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2008.

Besides developing a so-called Afghan Card for future negotiations with Washington, the IRGC seems to be representing the interests of state actors in the region that want to get back at America for various reasons (from grievances related to Cold War days to grievances about the Afghan peace process) but do not want to do it overtly and find the Iranian channel a convenient proxy in Afghanistan.

As the arrest of the key IRGC-backed Taliban commander indicates, Iran might finally be readying to profit from its years of quiet investment in Afghanistan, especially after Esmail Ghaani was promoted to the commandership of the IRGC-QF after the death of Qassem Soleimani. Ghaani spent his years as IRGC-QF deputy commander focusing on Afghanistan, and he will likely draw upon his vast network there.

Mohammed Arif Shah Jehan, a former intelligence officer who later became governor of the western Afghan province of Farah, was quoted in 2017 as saying: “The regional politics have changed. The strongest Taliban here are Iranian Taliban.”

Ahmed Quraishi is a journalist based in Islamabad and Dubai who covers national security.