Escalating U.S.-Iran tensions mean Afghanistan, which shares a border with Iran, could be the next proxy battleground between Washington and Tehran, a clash that threatens to undermine the Trump administration’s pursuit of a peace deal with the Taliban and eventual drawdown of American troops.
Administration officials have recently warned of the potential for expanding Iranian activity in Afghanistan, and sources say Tehran’s support for the Taliban is well known in intelligence circles, where analysts are examining the extent to which the insurgent group already outsources some of its attack planning operations to Iran.
Communications intercepted between Taliban operatives based in Mashhad, Iran, and their counterparts working in Quetta, Pakistan, have exposed at least some level of such operational connectivity, one source told The Washington Times.
While Iran and the U.S. had parallel interests in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era — opposing the Taliban and backing anti-Taliban governments in Kabul — regional experts say the situation has changed in more recent years.
Many warn that Tehran’s response to the recent U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani earlier this month could include a Tehran-engineered escalation in Afghanistan — with the dual goal of targeting American troops and undermining delicate talks currently playing out between the Taliban and Washington.
“Should Afghanistan become the venue for a U.S.-Iranian conflict, it’s hard to imagine then that it would be possible for the U.S. to withdraw forces, which would essentially make it very difficult to consider any kind of peace arrangement with the Taliban,” said former U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson, a senior adviser to the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Mr. Olson noted during a roundtable discussion at the institute last week that Iran has the “levers” to foment violence in Afghanistan — not least of which are brigades of Shia Muslim Afghan and Pakistani fighters that Iranian special forces trained to fight in Syria in recent years.
And then there is the Iran-Taliban connection. “The fact is that Iran has had a relationship with the Taliban for the last decade or so,” said Mr. Olson, who noted that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour was returning from a lengthy stay inside Iran to Quetta, Pakistan, when a U.S. drone strike killed him in 2016.
The prospect that Tehran now seeks to accelerate its influence over the Taliban is worrisome for regional leaders.
Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi told reporters at Pakistan’s Embassy in Washington on Friday that “of course” he’s concerned about Iranian influence in Afghanistan and the possibility that the country could become the next battleground between Washington and Tehran.
Mr. Qureshi, who visited Tehran before arriving in Washington last week, said he warned Iranian leaders to stay out of Afghanistan’s affairs. “I’ve suggested to them it’s not in their interest,” he said. “It’s not in our interest, and it’s not in regional interest.”
But others say it may already be too late.
“Iran has been supporting the Taliban with a view to inflict pain on the U.S. in Afghanistan,” former Pakistani Ambassador to the U.S. Husain Haqqani told The Times. “From Iran’s point of view, Afghanistan is another battleground where they can cause damage to Americans.”
Iran’s potential leverage has only increased as the Trump administration moves tantalizingly close to a possible diplomatic breakthrough with the Taliban after years of delays in peace talks.
Mr. Haqqani, who now heads South and Central Asia program at the Hudson Institute, said the Iran-Taliban connection has been engineered to conceal the origin of attacks carried out by the Taliban.
Iranian support gives Taliban leaders based in Pakistan deniability so they can claim — in the midst of sensitive U.S.-Taliban talks — that some attacks against Americans in Afghanistan are actually coming from Iran, Mr. Haqqani said.
“People know that some attacks are planned out of Mashhad, which is a significant haven for the Taliban inside Iran, and some are planned out of Quetta, which is the Taliban’s base inside Pakistan,” he said.
The Trump administration has had to tread carefully on the prospect of an escalating proxy war with Iran in the wake of the Jan. 3 Soleimani strike.
President Trump spoke of de-escalating the situation after Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes on U.S. bases in Iraq, announcing on Jan. 8 that no U.S. troops had been killed and Tehran “appear[ed] to be standing down” from a further military confrontation.
But concern over Afghanistan was already swirling among the president’s top advisers, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo having warned on Jan. 7 that the Iranian regime “has a relationship the Taliban.” While Mr. Pompeo did not offer specific details, he said that “Taliban’s entanglement in Iran’s dirty work will only harm the Afghanistan peace process.”
Prior to Mr. Trump’s de-escalation comments, Mr. Pompeo said attacks anywhere by Tehran-backed proxies would trigger a U.S. response directly against Iran.
“We’ve told the Iranian regime, ‘Enough. You can’t get away with using proxy forces and think your homeland will be safe and secure,’” Mr. Pompeo told ABC’s “This Week” on Jan. 5. “We’re going to respond against the actual decision makers, the people who are causing this threat from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
His remarks were a departure from years past, when there was hopeful talk of possibility of common ground and even alignment of U.S. and Iranian interests in Afghanistan. Iran, a Shia Muslim theocracy, backed elements of the U.S. campaign against the Taliban during the years immediately following the 9/11 attacks, and has maintained relations with the governments of Afghan Presidents Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani.
Such remarks are put the entire region on notice.
Mr. Ghani has said this month that his country should not be used as a stage for regional conflict, while Pakistani leaders have scrambled to get all sides, including U.S. ally and Iran-rival Saudi Arabia, to head off further escalation.
“I think both countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, are seeking to stay out of any U.S.-Iranian conflict,” said Mr. Olson, noting that Mr. Qureshi had “traveled to Iran and then he went to Saudi Arabia, and now he’s here.”
“If the war were to escalate in Afghanistan,” he added, “that is to say, if the Taliban began using weaponry from Iran that was more sophisticated and cause problems for us, obviously that would have an impact on the peace process.”
Mr. Haqqani went further, saying the Soleimani killing “accelerated” Tehran’s willingness to overlook any misgivings it may have once toward aligning with the Sunni extremist Taliban next door in Afghanistan.
“The Iranians have already been using the Taliban as a political and strategic ally, just as they use Sunni Muslim Hamas against the Israelis,” he said.
“If the Iranians want to inflict damage on the Americans, why not do it in a theater where any retribution or retaliation won’t affect the Iranians directly?” Mr. Haqqani said. “If the Iranians exact revenge for the Soleimani strike through the Taliban in Afghanistan, it’s no skin off of Iran’s back. What will the Americans do, stop talking to the Taliban?”
“It’s a very strategic move,” he added. “The way the Iranians see it, the Americans are desperate to talk with the Taliban, so why not hurt the Americans in Afghanistan and it will be a ‘no lose’ for Iran.”
• Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.