The last US and foreign troops are due to leave Afghanistan by September 11, 2021. There is still no clear prospect for peace in the country, or for anything other than a probable uprising by the Taliban against Afghan government forces. The state has armed citizens in some parts of the country, including women, in anticipation of bloodshed to come.
Taliban commanders themselves have conflicting views on the prospects for Iran’s involvement in any future conflict as the group moves to seize back control of key districts. Some believe the Islamic Republic has no ties to the Taliban and will not support it, while others believe they can count on the mullahs for military support.
A senior Taliban intelligence official based in Badghis province, north-western Afghanistan, spoke to IranWire on the condition that we use his chosen pseudonym: Molavi Mohammad. He pledged allegiance to the Taliban five years ago and fought against Afghan government forces in Badghis before rapidly ascending up the ranks.
In Mohammad’s assessment, the Taliban has no compunction with either the presence of Shia Muslims in Afghanistan or the preservation of their holy sites. The “red line”, he says, is the propagation of Shiite “propaganda”: “We have no problem with the Shiite people. At the time of the Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan, which existed under the Taliban from 1996 to 2001], they had their religious centers, and if the Islamic Emirate takes power again, we will provide employment and other facilities for Shiites."
In recent months Shia Muslim websites have been repeatedly targeted by Sunni Islamist groups in Afghanistan. Mohammad denies that the Taliban was directly involved in the attacks. These assurances will mean little to Afghanistan's Shiite community, which despite what he says, recall not being allowed to so much as hold religious ceremonies in the late 1990s.
Attacks and military operations by the Taliban across the country have intensified since May this year, as foreign troops including the United States began to withdraw after 22 years on Afghan soil. The Taliban has even reached the borders of some major provinces, including Balkh, Ghazni, Farah, and Herat.
Mohammad describes the Afghan government as an entity opposed to "Islamic law", under which, he claims, repressive policies have worsened. “Problems are widespread in the areas controlled by the government. There is oppression and barbarism, and high rates of kidnapping, theft and other crimes. If the infidels [European and American countries] do not support the Afghan government, we will soon overthrow it and establish our Islamic Emirate so that all Afghans can live in peace."
Aside from physical incursions into Afghan territory, the Taliban has sought to assert itself online. After parts of some cities were captured, Taliban members were quick to prepare written reports, photos and videos about these “victories” and publish on social media – even in cases when they then moved on shortly afterward. Mohammad refers to this practice as "transparency".
Asked about the role of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the Taliban’s resurgence, he pauses for a few seconds. "We are trying to have good relations with all countries," he says. "If a country wants to interfere in our internal affairs or create a problem, we will consider it necessary to defend the country." He eventually denied knowledge of Iran providing any material or financial support to the Taliban.
Border Province Commander: “Taliban Members are Being Trained in Iran”
In contrast, Mullah Abdul Raziq, one of the key Taliban commanders in the provinces of Herat and Farah, which border Iran, told IranWire that troops affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) had long been fighting side-by-side with the Taliban.
Iran-backed operatives in the villages of Divar-e Sorkh and Khak-e-Sefid in Farah, he said, had set up hospitals to treat wounded Taliban fighters, and some Taliban members had also been transferred to Iran for hospital treatment.
The forces backed by the IRGC, Mullah Abdul Raziq says, wear Afghan uniforms on the battlefield and have advised and trained his own troops. “In Farah,” he claims, “50 percent of the Taliban are affiliated with Pakistan and the other 50 percent with Iran.
“Iran provides weapons to Taliban members who travel to Tehran for training in combat and the use of roadside bombs. After six months of training, they return to Afghanistan. Iran also pays good salaries to the Taliban in Farah."
Abdul Raziq, however, is quick to distance himself from these Taliban supporters and is critical of their operations: "The Iranian Taliban are destroying facilities. They don’t want the construction of the Bakhshabad Dam to go ahead; if it is completed, Iran will face water shortages."
Iranian Officials’ History of Meetings With the Taliban
Multiple officials within the Islamic Republic have confirmed the regime’s tacit acceptance of the Taliban. In an interview with Afghanistan's TOLOnews channel, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said he was under the impression the Taliban wanted “peace on its own principles”. He and others had received a Taliban delegation to Iran in February 2021.
Two years earlier, Zarif had also met with Abdul Ghani Baradar, also known as Mullah Baradar Akhund, the Taliban's deputy leader, at the Iranian Foreign Ministry. Rasoul Mousavi, a senior Iranian foreign ministry official, said Iran "was cooperating with the Taliban in providing border security." Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, has also confirmed talks with the Taliban have taken place.
The Islamic Republic’s tacit acceptance of Taliban presence has become a major concern in Afghan society, especially as many members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militant branch of the IRGC made up of Afghan nationals, have recently returned home after fighting in Syria. The prospect of the Taliban’s return to power is a nightmare for a large proportion of Afghan civilians, especially in the light of recent atrocities.
Mohammad Ali, 45, a native of Herat, told IranWire about his experience of life under the Taliban in the 1990s. "Many people were deprived of their rights,” he said. “The Taliban repeatedly forced Shiites to hold Sunni-style religious ceremonies. I was beaten many times, and I was forced to pray with a gun, and I was forced to pray in the Sunni style. I have really bad memories of the Taliban in my mind. They should not overshadow our destiny again."
The implicit or direct role of the Islamic Republic in any return of the Taliban to power is so far still an unknown quantity. The state’s current mouthpiece for foreign affairs has insisted Iran wants to see “peace” in the country. But what kind of peace, and on whose terms?
This article was written by a citizen journalist in Herat under a pseudonym.