Iran's Support for the Taliban Is No Surprise

U.S. military officials are confirming that Shiite Iran is covertly helping the Sunni Taliban militants waging war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the media is treating it like it is news. The truth is that it is only news because the media, commentators, and some in the national security apparatus have adamantly stuck to the myth that cross-ideological cooperation between extremists is impossible. The thinking that extremists are so intolerant of different points of view that they’d never ally with one another rests on sound logic, but not sound evidence.

The alliance between Iran and the Taliban is a strong rebuttal to this still-too-common theory in analytical circles. Not only are the two on the opposite sides ideologically, they were fierce enemies for a long time. The Taliban viciously oppressed Shiites, and Iran nearly went to war with them in 1999 after they murdered eight Iranian diplomats. The Iranians backed Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance that sought to overthrow the Taliban. If these two sides can ally together despite their differences, then it shows that the analysis about the nature of Islamic extremists’ dealing with one another couldn’t be more wrong.

The Iranian regime and the Taliban immediately put aside their differences in the wake of September 11, 2001. The Taliban’s governor of Herat province told his American captors that he attended a meeting between Iranian and Taliban officials in October 2001 where he was tasked with arranging security. It was here that the Iranians agreed to provide unspecified assistance to the Taliban. An aide to a warlord in Herat confirmed to Time magazine that an official close to Ayatollah Khamenei went to Kabul in October 2001 and offered safe harbor. Time says that 50 vehicles carrying 250 senior Taliban and al-Qaeda members escaped to Iran.

The Iranians have long supported Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a top insurgency leader allied to the Taliban. In 2005, Spanish military-intelligence described him as having “total freedom” in a Tehran hotel, where he managed his forces with protection from the elite Qods Force of the Revolutionary Guards. Another top Taliban official that worked with the Iranians was Mullah Mustafa, who was killed in June 2009 in an airstrike.

The State Department says that as early as 2006, Iran was arming Taliban militants with “small arms and associated ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets, and plastic explosives.” The Qods Force was confirmed to be giving them training on “small unit tactics, small arms, explosives, and indirect fire weapons.”

An anonymous Taliban commander in September 2008 confirmed that Iran was shipping them explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), a sophisticated form of the improvised explosive devices that were being used to kill American soldiers in armored personnel carriers in Iraq. As the U.S. is using tactics honed in Iraq to fight in Afghanistan, so too are the Iranians.

The weapons shipments to the Taliban cannot be shrugged off. In 2009, over 10 tons of weapons were intercepted on the Iranian border. An anonymous “counterterrorism official” says that the assistance has reached "very troubling” levels. On August 29, 2009, a stockpile of EFPs, 107 BM-1 rockets, and dozens of blocks of C4 explosives manufactured in Iran was found in Herat. Surface-to-air missiles have even been provided. Afghan intelligence believes that 60% of the Iranian arms used by the Taliban come directly from the regime, and the rest from the black market. The percentage is probably even higher as the regime is probably using the black market to increase deniability.

Taliban commanders are becoming more open about their alliance with Iran. One told the British press, “Our religions and our histories are different but our target is the same. We both want to kill Americans.” Another commander in Kunduz describes the Iranian border as becoming increasingly vital for their operations due to the Pakistani crackdown.

The commanders say that the Iranians pay Taliban militants to go to Zahedan and train for three months in the winter. The first month focuses on attacking convoys, the second month centers on the use of IEDs, and the last month finishes with learning how to attack bases and military posts. It’s also been reported that the Iranians have taught the Taliban how to secure their communications, making it more difficult for the U.S., Afghan, and Pakistani forces to prevent ambushes and other attacks.

The Iranian strategy for Afghanistan is more sophisticated than simply backing one side. The regime is supportive of the post-Taliban government, and Ahmadinejad has met with Karzai. The Iranians are investing in the country as a way of building influence and ties with the local and central governments.

This strategy of dual alignment shows the sophistication of Iran’s covert maneuvering. The Iranians do not hide the fact that the Taliban’s weapons are made in Iran so as to remind the West that they hold the keys to stability. At the same time, Iran co-opts the Taliban by turning their weaknesses into dependency that creates influence. The misguided belief that extremists of different beliefs don’t cooperate actually encourages such alliances.

State sponsors of terrorism know that as long as they deny the West rock-solid proof that would change the stubborn minds of proponents of that theory, they can escape retribution. Because the alliance seems unnatural, it bolsters the position of those who argue that any arrangement is fragile and is only created by an overly aggressive U.S. posture. This is a perception that benefits the regime’s interests, and you can bet they are taking advantage of it.