Iran and the Taliban: not-so-strange bedfellows

The Wall Street Journal is reporting (behind a paywall; here’s a summary) that Taliban commanders in Afghanistan are getting money and weapons from Iran. This is newsworthy in that, as has been pretty well-documented, after 9/11 Iran went to some effort to aid the US in taking down the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. This appears to have partly been an effort by the Khatami government to open some inroads with Washington, but also grew naturally out of Iran’s pre-9/11 disposition toward the Taliban government — Tehran cut diplomatic ties with the Taliban less than a year after they took over Afghanistan, and then provided significant aid to the opposition Northern Alliance.

Now, there are a lot of caveats to this story. For one thing, it can be very hard to get a clear picture of what’s happening in Afghanistan, at least outside of Kabul, and it can be even more difficult to figure out what Iran is really up to. American media specialize in writing about this stuff without a full understanding of what’s going on. That goes double (triple, maybe) for an outlet like the WSJ, whose editorial proclivities naturally cause it to seek out stories of the “OMG IRAN IS DOING BAD THING X” variety the way InfoWars hunts for stories about Americans who have been turned into cannibal lizard people by chemtrails, or whatever. But, if this story is true then it isn’t really all that surprising, is it?

Iran worked against the nutty Sunni extremist Taliban when they were running Afghanistan and potentially could be a real problem both for Iran and for the ~35% of Afghanistan’s population who are either Tajik (Persian-speaking, ethnically Iranian) or Hazara (also Persian-speaking, ethnically ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ but at least partly Mongolian, and almost all Twelver Shiʿa), and with whom Tehran has historic/revanchist ties (though, frankly, Iran treats its own Hazara community about as well as the Taliban treated theirs). After 9/11, when it was clear that the Taliban had probably bitten off more than they could chew by hosting Al-Qaeda, Tehran figured it could get in on the ground floor of a much friendlier new regime in Kabul, plus score some points with the Americans, if it played ball. Then “Axis of Evil” and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad happened, so scoring points with the Americans was no longer a concern, but Iran still had (and has) plenty of reasons to cultivate good relations with the government in Kabul.

Two things are changing that calculus, though. One is the inevitable American pullout, which has slowed down but is still going to happen, and the still very live possibility of a Taliban/Haqqani resurgence once that happens. Might as well get in good on both sides of what looks like an impending civil war with no clear favorite, right? The second thing is the equally inevitable infiltration of ISIS into Afghanistan, where, just like it’s done with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, it makes even the most violent Sunni extremists seem moderate and docile by comparison. If the Iranians didn’t like living next door to a country run by the Taliban, they definitely don’t want ISIS causing problems on both their western and eastern borders. Tehran will work with any group that offers a counterweight to ISIS, including, it seems, the Taliban.

I was thinking about this story and trying to figure out if there are any lessons for the US here, some kind of “the enemy of my enemy” pearl of wisdom, but eh, I don’t see it. Iran can afford to play every side in Afghanistan because it has no real objectives there apart from stability and a reduction in the heroin trade. If the Taliban will give them those things, plus provide a bulwark against ISIS’s expansion, then Tehran has no reason not to engage them. The US, on the other hand, can’t ever seem to figure out if it wants to focus on simple regional goals like achieving short-term stability, or if it’s better off pushing a long-term agenda of liberalization and social change, and backing a group like the Taliban (or the Assad regime in Syria) isn’t really an option unless that question gets settled in favor of the short-term solution. Plus, and in the case of Afghanistan in particular, America has actually tried backing one potential problem in order to help deal with another, more immediate problem, and, ah, it didn’t work out so well. The threat of blowback seems to be omnipresent no matter what the US does, and it’s a much bigger worry for the US than it is for Iran.

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