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Iran and Russia play double-game in Afghanistan, protecting their influence

  • Rupert Stone
  • 26 Jan 2022

With the Taliban yet to convince Tehran and Moscow it is a reliable ally, groups like the National Resistance Front remain politically relevant.

( Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo )

It was recently Tehran's turn to host peace talks between Afghanistan’s political leaders following unsuccessful efforts in Doha, Moscow and Islamabad to resolve decades of internal conflict.

This month the Taliban’s acting foreign minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and other officials met delegates of the Afghan resistance, including Ahmad Massoud and Ismail Khan, who lives in Iran, while on a trip to the Iranian capital.

The meeting was arranged by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of Iran, according to a former Afghan government official and Amin Karim, a senior member of Hezb-i Islami, both of whom knew details of the talks and shared them with TRT World.

The Iranians had to pressure Massoud (the son of the late legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, also known as the Lion of Panjshir) and the Taliban into attending the meeting, according to Karim, insisting that Muttaqi meet the NRF delegates as a condition for his official visit to Tehran.

Massoud is the leader of the National Resistance Front (NRF), an armed movement associated primarily with Afghanistan’s Tajik ethnic minority. After the August 15 takeover, Massoud’s fighters held out against the Taliban from their base in the Panjshir Valley.

But they eventually lost control of the valley on September 6 and Massoud reportedly fled to Tajikistan, followed soon after by Amrullah Saleh, the former vice-president who declared himself acting president after Ashraf Ghani left Afghanistan in August.

However, Massoud continues to visit Panjshir as his fighters still control about 60-65 percent of the area, according to Ali Nazari, head of foreign relations for the NRF. The resistance has now spread to several other provinces, Nazari told TRT World.

Tajikistan encouraged the talks in Tehran and Russia also endorsed them, the former Afghan official said. Both countries would prefer to see an inclusive government in Kabul that accommodates Tajiks and other minorities, the source said.

Pakistan tried three times since September to host the discussions but the NRF was “playing hardball” and chose to meet in Iran, according to the former official. Last year, Pakistan courted Tajik leaders, inviting a delegation to Islamabad.

Both before and after the August takeover, Pakistan’s ISI also brokered meetings between the Taliban, including members of the Haqqani network, and Massoud’s representatives in Dubai and Tajikistan that failed, said a source close to the NRF leadership.

The Pakistani government did not respond to TRT World’s request for comment.

Islamabad has been concerned by the Taliban’s ties to Tehreek i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and was apparently hoping that a future government would include non-Pashtun elements that could balance the militants’ power, the source said.

Pakistan might also have been trying to pre-empt Indian support for the Tajiks, fearing that Delhi would once again step in and support the northern Afghan resistance as it did during the previous Taliban regime.

Moreover, Pakistan aims to boost trade with Tajikistan and other Central Asian states as part of a shift toward geoeconomics in its foreign policy and continued internal strife in Afghanistan could disrupt commerce and investment.

The acting foreign minister in Afghanistan's Taliban-run Cabinet, Amir Khan Muttaqi, arrives for the extraordinary session of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) Council of Foreign Ministers, in Islamabad, Pakistan, Dec. 19, 2021.(AP)

There was reportedly opposition within the NRF to the Tehran talks led by Saleh, the former Afghan official said. In August Saleh tweeted that he “will never be under one ceiling with Taliban. NEVER.” He could not be reached for comment.

At the meeting, NRF delegates reiterated longstanding demands for a more decentralised and democratic political system that properly represented Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious minorities while granting rights to women and other groups, according to Ali Nazari.

But the Taliban rejected the NRF’s conditions, Nazari said, and the talks “ended without any results”. No formal negotiations will occur. “We tested them. We saw that they are not serious,” Nazari said.

The Iranians were apparently “disappointed” with the Taliban’s intransigence in the meeting, according to a senior Afghan diplomat. The NRF had apparently made similar proposals to Muttaqi prior to the Taliban’s assault on Panjshir.

The Taliban did not respond to TRT World’s request for comment.

Omar Samad, a former Afghan ambassador to Canada and France, said that the “Taliban have pursued a narrow intra-Afghan outreach process since September as they are more focused with power consolidation and selective engagement.”

Habibullah Hesam, who attended the talks, denied that Massoud was there. Ali Nazari also claimed that Massoud did not attend, instead meeting Muttaqi during a chance encounter at the residence of the caretaker of the Afghan embassy.

However, Ismail Khan on his Facebook page suggested that Massoud was there for the talks, while Amin Karim and the senior Afghan diplomat, along with the caretaker of the Afghan embassy in Tehran, also confirmed his participation.

Massoud and Khan could not be reached for comment, the NRF's Nazari denied that Massoud was present for the informal talks whereas the NRF's official spokesperson offered no comment on his attendance.

An Iranian official was present for at least some of the discussions. The talks represent a renewed effort by Tehran to consolidate its influence in Afghanistan and address important issues ranging from drug and refugee flows, to terrorism, trade and water-sharing.

An Afghan refugee boy holds a poster of Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, during a protest against the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, in New Delhi, India,, Sept. 10, 2021.(AP)

Why Iran?

Over the years, Iran has cultivated relations with an array of Afghan groups and has long held ties to the predominantly Shia Hazara minority. In the 1990s it joined Russia, India and others in supporting the anti-Taliban resistance under Ahmad Massoud’s father.

Iran almost went to war with the Taliban regime after nine diplomats were killed in 1998. It initially supported the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 but when Bush included Iran in its ‘axis of evil’, it grew hostile to the US presence.

Eager to expel American troops from its neighbourhood and recognising that the Taliban had become a powerful force that would likely enter government, Iran eventually started supporting the insurgents with arms, funding, and sanctuary.

Iran played a double game, backing the Taliban but remaining close to the former authorities in Kabul and maintaining old links to the Afghan Tajiks, while allegedly deploying its Shia militia, the Fatemiyoun, to the country.

Unlike most of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Tehran was highly critical of the Doha agreement between the Taliban and US in February 2020, as it excluded the former government of Ashraf Ghani and gave de facto recognition to the Taliban’s ‘emirate’.

Massoud, who attended university in the UK and trained at Sandhurst military academy, has solicited western countries for support, making a high-profile trip to France where he met the French president.

But Massoud also has deep, long-standing ties to Iran. His father was close to the Quds force and its notorious former commander Qasem Soleimani. The younger Ahmad lived in Iran as a boy and attended school there.

Soleimani became “like a second father” and he is also acquainted with the current Quds commander, Esmail Qaani, and the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, according to a source close to the NRF leadership.

He visits Iran regularly, according to the source, and has family members in the country. While the NRF does not receive military support from the Iranian government, it does receive some funding, he said.

The Iranian government did not respond to TRT World’s request for comment.

Many people in Iran, mindful of the Taliban’s Sunni fundamentalism and killing of Iranian diplomats, appear to admire Massoud which has forced the government to be “active in support of NRF”, the senior Afghan diplomat said.

Although there is “no proof” that Tehran backs the NRF directly, Diako Hosseini, a former presidential adviser, said that Massoud’s family has had a “strong nexus with Iran and it is not unimaginable that Iran sympathetically stands with him and his cause”.

Iran has formed a pragmatic relationship with the Taliban and kept its embassy open in Kabul after the takeover, but it has also expressed “major concern” with the situation in Afghanistan and declined to recognise the regime, calling for a more inclusive government.

“Coexistence with the Taliban is inevitable for Iran,” said Hosseini. “It doesn’t mean that Iran is satisfied with all behaviour of the Taliban regime in its domestic or its foreign policy but Tehran cannot cease dialogue with the Taliban to address the challenges.”

A wider net

Massoud’s visits to Iran and personal ties have raised concerns in the US government that his movement might eventually turn into another Iranian proxy like Hezbollah or the militias in Iraq, the source close to the NRF leadership said.

The US was reportedly considering cooperation with Massoud on intelligence-gathering but nothing materialised, Nazari told TRT World. A US State Department spokesperson, on background, declined to comment for this story.

After the Taliban takeover in August, the British government armed Massoud’s resistance with weapons from supplies inside Afghanistan and provided intelligence support, but discontinued those efforts over concerns about his ties to Iran, said the source.

The UK Ministry of Defence did not respond to TRT World’s request for comment.

Massoud has also preserved his father’s relationship with Russia, sometimes communicating directly with President Putin and the head of Russian intelligence service, the FSB, according to the source.

In addition to hosting NRF leaders and offering moral support, Tajikistan has given some logistical assistance to Massoud, helping to maintain a Mi7 helicopter, and it is likely the NRF has also received light arms from Tajikistan with Russia’s blessing, the source said.

The government of Tajikistan did not respond to TRT World’s request for comment.

The New York Times, citing Afghan intelligence documents, reported In August that Massoud’s group might be purchasing weapons from Russia. Reports also appeared that there had been an air drop of weapons from Tajikistan, denied by the government.

Photographs have subsequently appeared of NRF fighters posing with Russian arms. The armaments expert Calibre Obscura tweeted images of the weapons, claiming the equipment had not been seen previously in Afghanistan, suggesting a “possible new supply”.

The Russian government did not respond to TRT World’s request for comment, but it did issue a statement in response to the images denying that it was arming the Afghan warring parties “in any way”.

Ali Nazari denied that the group was receiving assistance from “any of the regional countries”, while acknowledging that there were “cordial relations” with most of Afghanistan’s neighbours.

Moscow, like Tehran, is hedging its bets, working pragmatically with the Taliban while preserving old links to the Tajiks in northern Afghanistan, a key route for drug-traffickers and terrorists seeking to penetrate Central Asia and Russia itself.

Foreign countries will likely only start throwing their weight behind the NRF once it has proven itself, said the senior Afghan diplomat. “They have to prove that they are capable of fighting,” the diplomat told TRT World. “The investment will come after that.”

And rather than seeking to oust the Taliban regime, the international community has accepted its rule as a reality while hoping that it will introduce reforms allowing for human rights and a more inclusive government.

But the Taliban “have definitely not convinced Tehran and Moscow as a sure shot bankable ally,” said Kamal Alam, a non-resident senior fellow at The Atlantic Council. “This means other groups, especially NRF, remain politically very relevant.”

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