Iranian authorities deny that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour had just returned from a trip to Iran when he was killed May 21 by a US drone strike not far from the Iran-Pakistan border.
But experts on Afghanistan tell Al-Monitor that Iran has played a complicated game with the Afghan militant group for over a decade and has stepped up contacts in recent years in part to keep an even more dangerous organization — the group that calls itself the Islamic State — from expanding its territory to Iran’s east.
Although IS has only 1,000-3,000 adherents in Afghanistan, according to the Pentagon, far fewer than in Iraq or Syria, the Iranian government has a much more alarming assessment.
“My own personal observation from exchanges with Iranians in various settings is that their estimate of the threat of [IS] in Afghanistan is higher than that of the United States,” said Barnett Rubin, a former senior adviser to the Barack Obama administration on Afghanistan and Pakistan. He told Al-Monitor that the Russians also share this view.
Iran and the United States tacitly cooperated in overthrowing the Taliban regime in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. Iran had staunchly opposed the Taliban in the 1990s and had almost gone to war with it after Taliban forces massacred Iranian diplomats and local Shiite Muslims in the Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif in 1998.
US and Iranian attitudes toward Afghanistan began to diverge after President George W. Bush announced a strategic partnership with the government of then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai in 2005. According to Rubin, the Iranians, already worried about the heavy US military presence to their west in Iraq, considered this declaration “a step toward our having permanent bases in Afghanistan.”
A decade later, there are still 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan and thousands are likely to remain, given the fragility of the current government of President Ashraf Ghani and the continuing threat to Afghan and US forces primarily from the Taliban.
James Cunningham, a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, told Al-Monitor in an email that while Iran doesn’t want the United States to remain, it “doesn’t want Afghanistan to collapse," explaining, "Iran wants to have contacts but doesn’t want the Taliban in power. And it is afraid of [IS].”
IS first appeared in Afghanistan in 2014. It proclaimed its presence on Jan. 26, 2015, naming a former Pakistani Taliban chief, Hafiz Saeed Khan, head of what IS called Khorasan province, the name for the region that centuries ago included Afghanistan, Pakistan and several Central Asian countries.
According to Afghan expert Fatemeh Aman, the group has attracted mostly non-Afghan fighters from Central Asia, including members of the Hizb ut-Tahrir (Islamic Party of Liberation) from Uzbekistan, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Islamic Movement of Tajikistan, Chechens from Russia and Uighurs from China. It also has adherents from the Pakistani Taliban, known as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, and other extremist Pakistani groups.
US forces have targeted IS in Afghanistan heavily this year, striking its camps in eastern Nangarhar province. Analysts say the group missed an opportunity to recruit more disaffected Afghan Taliban after it was revealed that the Taliban leadership had kept the 2013 death of the group’s founder, Mullah Omar, secret for two years. Earlier this year, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described IS as a “low level threat to Afghan stability.”
Given this assessment and the fact that IS is concentrated in eastern Afghanistan, both Rubin and Cunningham said that a recent report claiming Iran had enlisted the Taliban to build a buffer zone against IS on the Iran-Afghan border was overstated.
Rubin said, “There is more alignment between the Taliban and Pakistan,” which has harbored Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders for many years. “With Iran, it’s a marriage of convenience.”
However, the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan has become caught up in the proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is churning in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Iran has recruited thousands of Afghan and Pakistani Shiites to fight alongside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in support of the government in Syria against Saudi-backed Sunni militants. Hundreds of members of the so-called Zaynabiyun Brigade have died in the Syrian war.
In providing some minimal support to the Taliban, Iran is likely trying to compete with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for the group’s affections as well as hedging about the durability and reach of the Kabul government.
Iran is also worried about IS recruitment among its own disgruntled Sunni minority, especially members of non-Persian ethnic groups such as the Kurds and Baluch, who live in peripheral areas of the Islamic Republic.
Asked whether Mansour had just visited Iran before he was killed, Hamid Babaei, the press counselor at the Iranian mission to the United Nations, relayed a comment by Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jaberi Ansari. “The concerned authorities in Iran reject that such a person had entered Pakistan via Iran’s border at the stated date,” Ansari said, according to Babaei.
The US State Department also declined to confirm Mansour’s travel, which was indicated by visa stamps on a passport carrying a false name, Wali Mohammad, and Mansour’s picture that the Pakistanis said was found near his body.
“We just don’t have any clarity on that," spokesman Mark Toner told reporters May 24.
Rubin was more definitive. “I’m sure he was in Iran,” he told Al-Monitor. “He had stamps on his visa and he was killed near a border post.”
Rubin added that there are several million Afghans in Iran, most of whom have relatives back home and who travel frequently back and forth across the border. “I expect that if the leader of the Taliban goes to Iran, [the Iranians] know about it,” he said.
According to one account, Mansour, using the false passport, also traveled frequently from the international airport in Karachi, Pakistan, visiting Dubai 18 times and Bahrain once over the past nine years.
US officials say they targeted Mansour because he threatened US forces and had shown no interest in peace talks with the Afghan government. Mansour’s successor, a hard-line jurist named Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, also looks disinclined to pursue peace. Just days after he was elevated, the Taliban carried out new attacks against Afghan police in southern Helmand province.
“Pick your conspiracy theory,” Cunningham said when asked about Mansour’s demise. “How did his passport survive? Did [IS] shop him to the US? Did the Iranians tip us off? We likely will never know. But the Taliban must be wondering, too.
“What needs to be debunked is the Pakistani line that Afghanistan is the fault of the United States and the international community, and that the killing [of Mansour] blocks the [Afghan-Taliban] peace process,” Cunningham continued. “There is no peace process; Mansour made clear there was no intent to negotiate.”