As Iran plans vengeance for the United States’ killing of the commander of its Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. should not ignore Afghanistan as an important theater where Iran might flex its muscle. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently warned Iran and the Taliban about the effect their ties might have on talks between American negotiators and Taliban representatives. But the prospects of imminent U.S. withdrawal only increase the chances that Tehran will stage a patient anti-American covert campaign in Afghanistan.
Iran’s nefarious role in neighboring Afghanistan is no secret. It has long struggled to bring Afghanistan into its orbit of influence by building deep and multifaceted relationships with the country’s political and armed groups. Tehran’s persistent opposition to American presence in Afghanistan – a factor that drives Iran’s Afghan policy – has, meanwhile, steadily turned Afghanistan into a competing ground.
Even though Soleimani’s death has affected Iranian subversive activities across the greater Middle East, its Afghanistan portfolio might actually get a boost because the man who managed it as Soleimani’s deputy is now his successor.
General Ismail Qaani, whose adventures in Afghanistan traces back to the 1980s, has been the principal architect behind cultivating and directing Afghan armed proxies and jihadist cells. It has cost Tehran millions of dollars to operate its Afghan proxies, including the Taliban factions, Shiite fighters in the Fatemiyoun Division and the Liwa Baba Mazari. Qaani has also been active in securing tacit political backing for these groups among prominent Afghan factional leaders.
A special Afghanistan directorate within the Quds Force, known as Directorate 06, assists covert political and paramilitary efforts. Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamanei, oversees another entity known as the Joint Committee for Special Operations (JSCO), (or Komitey-e Omour-e Vizheh), which determines broader policy guidelines.
For years, these entities have frustrated the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by arming and advising various anti-U.S. opposition groups and have stoked political and ethnic tensions inside Afghanistan by sponsoring Afghan factional leaders.
More vitally, the Quds Force infiltration of Taliban ranks and their support to various Taliban factions – including the group’s Red Unit – has boosted the Taliban’s lethality. Iran has supplied sniper rifles, laser-guided rifles, night vision goggles, small surveillance drones, headgear and sophisticated communication equipment to the Taliban. The Taliban has also benefitted from hundreds of Iranian advisers with tactical and battlefield expertise.
Meanwhile, Tehran has improved its ties with the Taliban leadership, unlike the 1990s when Iran almost went to war with the Taliban regime over its hostility to Shiites. Iran’s mullahs are increasingly willing to work with Sunni Islamist groups, such as Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and have built high-profile political contacts with the Taliban leaders.
The Iranian regime supports the Taliban’s Northern Shura in Afghanistan and has allowed the group to establish a command and control center in the Iranian city of Mashhad. The Mashhad Shura is controlled by Iran. Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour was killed by a U.S. drone in May 2016 in a remote part of Pakistan, while traveling back from Iran.
What’s more, the Quds Force has managed to create an Afghan version of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in the form of the Fatemiyoun militia, drawn primarily from Afghan Shiite Hazara community and the 1.5 million Iran-based Afghan refugees. Thousands of Fatemiyoun fighters have only recently returned to Afghanistan after fighting for Iranian interests in Syria.
Iran has also been encouraging Afghan leaders with anti-American sentiments to politically disrupt U.S. priorities in the country. Leaked U.S. government cables showed that Iran routinely encourages Afghan parliamentarians in using its anti-American talking points during parliamentary debates. While Iran signed a security cooperation agreement with Afghanistan in 2013, it opposed the U.S.-Afghan bilateral security pact signed the following year.
Similar to the recent vote by the Iraqi parliament to expel U.S. forces, Tehran could well task its Afghan proxies to push for a similar outcome in Afghanistan, stripping the U.S. of any local support to maintain troops and forcing it to leave Afghanistan at a time not of its choosing.
Make no mistake, Iran would like to export its Islamic revolution not only across the Arab Middle East but also through Afghanistan to Central Asia. Supporters of early U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan might cite Iran’s ability to attack American targets as one more reason why the U.S. should leave Afghanistan. But Iran’s web of Afghan proxies, its ties with Taliban factions and the potential influence of the Fatemiyoun militia after a likely U.S. military withdrawal are all reasons for continued U.S. military and intelligence presence in Afghanistan.
The dangers of Iran’s growing influence in Afghanistan are real. For starters, Tehran is likely to adjust its rules of engagement and expand its lethal support to select Taliban factions – especially the Haqqani Network – possibly to include the provision of surface-to-air missiles. Tactically, Tehran can exploit those decommissioned Fatemiyoun fighters who have since enlisted in the Afghan forces to turn their guns against American personnel. Meanwhile, the activities of Iranian organized criminal groups, who are engaged in cross-border smuggling of drugs, currency and rare minerals, are expected to increase. Tehran is also likely to boost its funding for universities, media outlets, Shiite centers and charity organizations to expand its soft influence.
These efforts pose another complication for American priorities in Afghanistan, including potentially allowing the Islamic State an opportunity to regenerate. Instead of surrendering to temptations to leave Afghanistan, U.S. policy should be focused on countering Iran’s growing influence in Afghanistan.
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