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Tehran’s Turn | Part 2: Iran Gains Ground in Afghanistan as U.S. Presence Wanes

An Ambitious Expansion

The depth of Iran’s ties to the Taliban burst unexpectedly into view last year. An American drone struck a taxi on a desert road in southwestern Pakistan, killing the driver and his single customer.

The passenger was none other than the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour. A wanted terrorist with an American bounty on his head who had been on the United Nations sanctions list since before 2001, Mullah Mansour was traveling without guards or weapons, confident and quite at home in Pakistan.

The strike exposed for the second time since the discovery of Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani hill town of Abbottabad the level of Pakistan’s complicity with wanted terrorists. It was the first time the United States had conducted a drone attack in Pakistan’s Baluchistan Province, a longtime sanctuary for the Taliban but until then off limits for American drones because of Pakistani protests.

Yet even more momentous was that Mullah Mansour was returning from a trip to Iran, where he had been meeting Iranian security officials and, through Iran, with Russian officials.

Afghan officials, Western diplomats and security analysts, and a former Taliban commander close to Mullah Mansour’s inner circle confirmed details of the meetings.

Both Russia and Iran have acknowledged that they have held meetings with the Taliban but maintain that they are only for information purposes.

That the Taliban leader was personally developing ties with both Iran and Russia signaled a stunning shift in alliance for the fundamentalist Taliban movement, which had always been supported by the Sunni powers among the Arab gulf states and Pakistan.

But times were changing with the American drawdown in Afghanistan, and Mullah Mansour had been seeking to diversify his sources of money and weapons since taking over the Taliban leadership in 2013. He had made 13 trips to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and one to Bahrain, his passport showed, but also at least two visits to Iran.

Set on expanding the Taliban’s sway in Afghanistan, he was also preparing to negotiate an end to the war, playing all sides on his terms, according to both Afghan officials with close knowledge of the Taliban and the former Taliban commander close to Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.

It was that ambitious expansionism that probably got him killed, they said.

“Mansour was a shrewd politician and businessman and had a broader ambition to widen his appeal to other countries,” said Timor Sharan, a former senior analyst of the International Crisis Group in Afghanistan who has since joined the Afghan government.

Mullah Mansour had been tight with the Iranians since his time in the Taliban government in the 1990s, according to Mr. Kohistani, the military analyst. Their interests, he and other analysts and Afghan officials say, overlapped in opium. Afghanistan is the world’s largest source of the drug, and Iran the main conduit to get it out.

Iran’s border guards have long fought drug traffickers crossing from Afghanistan, but Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Taliban have both benefited from the illicit trade, exacting dues from traffickers.

The main purpose of Mullah Mansour’s trips to Iran was tactical coordination, according to Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst and fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. At the time, in 2016, the Taliban were gearing up for offensives across eight Afghan provinces. Farah was seen as particularly ripe fruit.

Iran facilitated a meeting between Mullah Mansour and Russian officials, Afghan officials said, securing funds and weapons from Moscow for the insurgents.

Mullah Mansour’s cultivation of Iran for weapons was done with the full knowledge of Pakistan, said the former Taliban commander, who did not want to be identified since he had recently defected from the Taliban.

“He convinced the Pakistanis that he wanted to go there and get weapons, but he convinced the Pakistanis that he would not come under their influence and accept their orders,” he said.

Pakistan had also been eager to spread the political and financial burden of supporting the Taliban and had encouraged the Taliban’s ties with Iran, said Haji Agha Lalai, a presidential adviser and the deputy governor of Kandahar Province.

On his last visit, Mullah Mansour traveled to the Iranian capital, Tehran, to meet someone very important — possibly Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the former Taliban commander, who said he had gleaned the information from members of Mullah Mansour’s inner circle.

Mullah Mansour stayed for a week, also meeting with a senior Russian official in the town of Zahedan, said Mr. Lalai, who spoke with relatives of the Taliban leader.

He was almost certainly negotiating an escalation in Iranian and Russian assistance before his death, Mr. Lalai and other Afghan officials said, pointing to the increase in Iranian support for the Taliban during his leadership and since.

But the meeting with the Russians was apparently a step too far, Afghan officials say. His relations with Iran and Russia had expanded to the point that they threatened Pakistan’s control over the insurgency.

The United States had been aware of Mullah Mansour’s movements, including his ventures into Iran, for some time before the strike and had been sharing information with Pakistan, said Seth G. Jones, associate director at the RAND Corporation. Pakistan had also provided helpful information, he added. “They were partly supportive of targeting Mansour.”

Gen. John Nicholson, the United States commander of coalition forces in Afghanistan, said President Barack Obama had approved the strike after Mullah Mansour failed to join peace talks being organized in Pakistan.

Col. Ahmad Muslem Hayat, a former Afghan military attaché in London, said he believed that the American military had been making a point by striking Mullah Mansour on his return from Iran.

“When they target people like this, they follow them for months,” he said. “It was smart to do it to cast suspicions on Iran. They were trying to create a gap between Iran and the Taliban.”

But if that was the intention, Mr. Lalai said, it has not succeeded, judging by the way the new Taliban leader, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada, has picked up his predecessor’s work.

“I don’t think the contact is broken,” he said. “Haibatullah is still reaching out to Iran. They are desperately looking for more money if they want to extend the fight.”

Source: NYT > World

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