Last week, the Taliban cautioned the United States to refrain from making further demands, reservations and excuses. A few days earlier, the insurgent group expressed frustration with what they described as “additional U.S. demands” — a key U.S. demand from the Taliban has been the group’s disallowal of the use of Afghan territory for attacks against the United States by groups like al-Qaida. The Taliban showed a willingness to offer this guarantee in exchange for a timeline and eventually a complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan. Unable to announce a timeline due to disagreement within its own government and with Kabul, the United States stressed a need for the insurgents to strike a cease fire deal and start intra-Afghan talks. While the Taliban have been hinging on their key demand of an announcement of a timeline for a complete troop withdrawal before considering any of Washington’s demands, the latter asked the insurgent group to cut ties with Iran after the recent deterioration in Washington-Tehran relations.
A few days after the assassination of Iran’s top general Qasem Soleimani, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of undermining the Afghan peace process by using militant groups in the country, and cautioned the Taliban to disengage themselves from the Islamic republic. He emphasized that “the Taliban’s entanglement in Iran’s dirty work will only harm the Afghan peace process.” Pompeo, however, provided no details to support his charge.
A week later, while the U.S. Afghanistan peace envoy and the Taliban leadership were engaging in a fresh round of talks in Doha, the leader of the Hizb-i-Islami party, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, said that Washington has asked the insurgent group to abandon its links with Iran. Although Iran and the Taliban remained in a sectarian rivalry during the 1990s, the post-9/11 scenario in the region, especially a shared animosity toward the U.S. along with many other internal and external developments indicate that it would be disadvantageous for the insurgent group to cut their ties with the Islamic republic.
The misunderstandings leading to mistrust which prompted sectarian hatred between Iran and the Taliban have been evaporating, paving the way for a stable long-term alignment glued by and centered on political Islam. During their reign in the 1990s, the Taliban received patronage from Iran’s rival, Saudi Arabia. However, it was difficult for the Kingdom to take the side of its client (the Taliban) at the expense of its patron (the U.S.) in the post-9/11 world. Saudi Arabia’s harsh measures against Qatar, where the Taliban have their political office, and Doha’s improved ties with Tehran, helped clear the clouds of mistrust and misunderstanding between Iran and the Taliban. With Iran showing strong tendencies of an Islamic theocratic state, the Afghan insurgent group would find it unfavorable to degrade its relations with Tehran, especially when the group has been struggling to establish a government based on Islamic values in Afghanistan.
The remodeling of their relations is evident in the Taliban’s continued consultations with Iranian authorities. The group’s leadership has undertaken a number of visits to Tehran since the commencement of its peace negotiations with the United States. Their most recent trips in the aftermath of temporary collapse in the U.S.-Taliban talks not only reflect Tehran’s significance for the Afghan insurgency but also show the growing trust between the two parties.
Iran is also significant for the Afghan insurgent group because the country has maintained good terms with almost all Afghan stakeholders. Tehran shares historical ties with Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik, who despite being an old foe of the Taliban, has recently adopted a welcoming and mild stance. On the other hand, President Ashraf Ghani’s Pashtun ethnicity has not yielded any favors for the Taliban. For instance, recently, when the Taliban refused to agree to a cease fire, but showed willingness to generate a “reduction in violence,” the administration in Kabul was divided: Abdullah welcomed the move, Ghani called it a bluff. However, Iran has fostered smooth relations with Ghani’s faction as well. Thus, in the events of intra-Afghan negotiations, Tehran is expected to play the crucial role of a power broker, and for Taliban, Iran’s Islamic inclination may favor them in crafting a fine line between the republic and the emirate.
Additionally, and more interestingly, the Iran-Taliban face common imminent threats. Both remain in a direct tussle with the Islamic State, and the U.S. forces, with the ultimate aim to annihilate the former and expel the latter from the region. The Islamic State’s humiliation at the hands of Iran in Syria and Iraq and the rise of terrorist group’s affiliate, Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan and its strategic rivalry with the Afghan insurgents demand Iran and the Taliban to remain in contact. In a sense, the U.S. and the Islamic State share common enemies and strategic rivals in Afghanistan, which has prompted some observers and regional powers to blame the U.S. for facilitating the Islamic State’s rise in the war torn country; the US however denies this claim and has acted to strike the group’s stronghold in Nangarhar.
At present, the Taliban control more territory in Afghanistan than it has since the start of the insurgency. According to the latest estimates, more than 51 percent of the country is either under the insurgents’ control or contested. Offensives intensified especially after the announcement of the U.S. August 2017 Afghanistan-centric South Asia strategy which was aimed at forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table. However, the Taliban’s denial of a number of peace offers and ceasefire requests, and firm insistence on the complete withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghan soil indicate that the United States has been failing its plan in Afghanistan. Obviously, Iran’s diplomatic support remained instrumental for the Taliban to carry out this stratagem. In fact, Washington has accused Tehran of providing military support to the Afghan insurgents. Iran denies such claims.
Kashif Hussain holds an M.Phil Degree in International Relations from Quaid i Azam University Islamabad. He is currently serving as Research Associate at Strategic Studies Institute Islamabad (SSII).