The top American commander in Afghanistan told Congress yesterday that Iran and Russia are supporting the Taliban to undermine the U.S. mission to stabilize the war-ravaged country. Army Gen. John Nicholson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Iranian government is providing the Taliban with weapons and financial assistance, particularly in western Afghanistan. He also noted that Tehran is also recruiting Shiite fighters in Afghanistan and deploying them to defend the Syrian regime of Iran’s ally Bashar al-Assad.
"Russia, Iran, and al Qaeda are playing significant roles in Afghanistan—this wasn't the case a few years ago," the American general testified. “I believe [these actions] are in part to undermine the United States and NATO, and prevent this strong partnership that we have with the Afghans in the region,” he told lawmakers during a Congressional hearing.
Comment: Gen. Nicholson’s remarks come at a time when the Afghan government, too, is concerned about the Iranian government’s deepening ties with the Taliban. Recently, Afghan officials have repeatedly blasted the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) for providing funding, shelter and weapons to terrorist groups fighting in western and southern Afghan provinces. They have also alleged that the I.R.G.C.’s secretive Quds Force recruit militants from across Afghanistan and run terrorist training camps for them on the Iranian soil. On December 31, for example, Naser Mehri, the spokesman for the governor of western Farah Province, claimed that the IRGC aided the Taliban and played a prominent role in the latest spike in violence in Farah.
And in November, Farah’s Governor Mohammad Asif Nang said the I.R.G.C. had established military training centers for the Taliban in Birjand, the capital of Iran’s South Khorasan Province, as well as in parts of Khorasan-e Razavi Province. The two provinces share borders with Afghanistan. A report titled “Iranian Taliban?” published by Afghanistan’s largest daily Hasht-e Sobh in the same month claimed that the Iranian government had recently put a military training facility inside Iran – previously used by Afghan mujahedeen fighters against the Taliban in the 1990s – at the disposal of the Taliban.
Read moreover, there is a growing concern in Afghanistan about Iran’s increasing recruitment of Afghan refugees to fight Iran’s sectarian war in Syria and its implications for Afghanistan’s stability. An Iranian official last month revealed that 18,000 Afghans were fighting Sunni rebels in Syria under Iran’s Quds Force command. Known as the Fatemiyoun Division, Afghans now perhaps make the largest single militia unit fighting in Syria. This is happening at a time when scores of Afghan and Pakistani Sunnis are fighting on the opposing sides of the Syrian conflict, including with the Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked groups. As Gen. Nicholson mentioned in his yesterday testimony, the return of these battle-hardened fighters with sectarian beliefs could further inflame the war in Afghanistan.