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Iran’s support for Taliban pays off, but border remains problematic

Exports from Iran to Afghanistan are increasing as border clashes and the smuggling of both people and drugs fosters instability.
Iran border

ERBIL, Iraq – Some five months after the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Iran continues its longstanding strategic support and is benefiting from increased exports to the country.

However, recent border clashes and the killing of fighters from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) by “criminal gangs” have raised concern, as have the thousands of Afghans getting smuggled into Iran daily.

On Dec. 1, Afghan fighters manning the border in the southwestern province of Nimroz reportedly captured at least one border position from Iran only to later retreat. Both sides officially denied casualties despite media reports to the contrary.

There have been several border clashes between Taliban fighters and Pakistani border guards as well in recent weeks. Iran’s southeast borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan and a Pakistani soldier was killed at the Iranian border in late September.

Attempts by Pakistan to fence a key smuggling transit point have thus far failed due to armed resistance from the Taliban .

On Dec. 25, two IRGC fighters were reportedly killed in the country’s southeast in a clash with “criminal gangs”, reported IFP News.

The official Iranian media outlet noted, “Around 3,000 Iranian forces have lost their lives in clashes with the drug smuggling rings in the past four decades with an average of $1 billion spent annually” and “Tehran says European countries, specifically, have a responsibility to help Iran as hundreds of tons of narcotics it seizes in the area every year that would have otherwise found their way to Europe.”

However, many in Iraq claim that Iran is instead facilitating the regional drug trade.

The Norwegian Refugee Council reported in November that between 4,000 and 5,000 Afghan refugees were fleeing into Iran every day and that at least 300,000 had crossed in since the Taliban took over the country in August.

Iran had been supporting parts of the Taliban in areas near its border for many years prior to the Taliban takeover on Aug. 15. It had done so, experts say, for geopolitical reasons as well as to ensure continuing access to key water sources.

On a reporting trip to Afghanistan in July and August 2020, until some days before the Taliban took the capital, this journalist spoke to dozens of Afghans in the provinces of Kabul, Kandahar and Nangarhar. Many discussed Iran’s involvement in the country and its support for the Taliban.

On another reporting trip to the country in 2015, this journalist had also been told of increasing Iranian support for the Taliban as well as efforts to recruit young men to fight with the Iran’s Liwa Fatemiyoun for the war in Syria. She had in late 2014 spoken to Liwa Fatemiyoun fighters that had been captured by Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo.

Both the Liwa Fatemiyoun and at least parts of the Taliban have long been supported by the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). 

Recruits for Liwa Fatemiyoun came from Afghanistan and the large Afghan refugee population already in Iran. The fighting unit was sent to Syria to fight alongside the Syrian government forces against armed opposition groups formed as part of a 2011 uprising. The unit continues to fight in the ongoing war in Syria.

Iran is seen to have benefited from heightened influence in Syria as a result of its support for the Syrian government, including through the deploying of these Afghan fighters.

In a December 2020 interview, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said that Iran had discussed deploying Liwa Fatemiyoun to Afghanistan to fight the Islamic State Khorosan Province (ISKP) along the lines of how the Popular Mobilization Units operate in Iraq.  Notably, Zarif in that interview avoided directly answering the question of whether the Taliban were a terrorist group.

ISKP have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks in recent months since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, especially in the eastern regions of the country in which the local branch of the Islamic State has for years had a strong following and at times held pockets of territory.

The Taliban often say that men they kill had been working with ISKP; others claim many of these killings are revenge attacks on former Afghan government military with no connection to ISKP.

Meanwhile, Iran’s support over the years for the Taliban seems to be paying off in economic terms and in influence on the western part of the country.

The Wall Street Journal, reporting from Afghanistan’s southwestern province of Nimruz in late 2021, quoted a local official in Herat as saying that from August to December, Iran imported $45 million in goods through western Afghanistan, up 20 percent from the previous year, while the Afghan economy shrank by 40 percent, according to a UN estimate. 

Retailers in Herat told the publication that they had become much more dependent on Iranian products after the Taliban takeover, with one claiming that they would “100 percent become more dependent on Iran."

A lack of independent media access makes it time-consuming and sometimes impossible to verify reports coming out of Iran. Access to Afghanistan is still possible,  but there are concerns that, should the Taliban not receive sufficient aid or concessions from Western countries, that too may be stopped or severely restricted.

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