After a U.S. strike killed Iran’s Quds Force commander, Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a notorious proxy chief, the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei warned of “severe retaliation against Americans.” Swiftly, Iran refocused on Afghanistan to target American interests with little cost, restructuring local proxy groups, and patting Afghan political elites on the shoulder against U.S. presence in the country — just like they did in Iraq.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has long been operating its proxies in Afghanistan, cleverly advancing its favorites in the Afghan political arena to arming the Taliban factions. Most recently, Iran has been recruiting Afghan Shi’ite teenagers at Fatemiyoun Brigade as manpower for President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to fend off the U.S.-led coalition in Syria.
Historically, Iran’s support has been knotted solely to Shi’ite groups in Afghanistan. Recently, they have poured money into Sunni hardliners, including the Taliban’s factions operating out of Afghanistan’s Helmand and western provinces. In new claims, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized Iran for hindering the Afghan peace process and backing the Taliban, which has been involved in on-off peace talks with American negotiators.
Iranian officials, however, have repeatedly rejected claims that they are sabotaging the peace talks.
Last month, shortly after Pompeo’s allegations, Mullah Nangiali, a senior Taliban splinter-group commander, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in western Herat province. The faction led by Mullah Rasoul, reportedly, is involved in opium trafficking, and receiving weapons from Iran.
More specifically, according to the Afghan intelligence officials, they are aware of snipers, riflescopes, night sighting, and a so-called laser gun capable of long-range targeting with the Taliban in Helamnd, Ghazni and Maidan Wardak provinces — also known as Taliban’s red units. According to a provincial intel chief in Maidan Wardak province, foreign advisers were spotted advising the Taliban in the area. He is confident that Iran has been providing them with modern weapons — they call them “ghost weapons.”
‘Malign influence’ in domestic politics
President Ashraf Ghani, during his first term, sidelined the pro-Iran Shi’ite and other ethnic leaders allegedly receiving funds from Tehran. The groups often advocates for Iranian interests in Afghanistan. If Ghani wins a second term, the U.S. diplomats seem poised to push for a broader government, known as an “inclusive political participation,” to ensure nobody is left behind, including those vulnerable to Iranian influence.
Unexpectedly, dozens of prominent Afghan Sunni and Shi’ite politicians, including national unity government chief executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah — all long-supported by United States — are deeply concerned. Even former Afghan president Hamid Karzai was among those who condemned the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani in Iraq. Leaving them abandoned will surely drive them against U.S. interests — even they can push for an immediate withdrawal of the U.S. forces from Afghanistan.
Quds Force proxy
Soon after Soleimani’s assassination, Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei announced his successor. Gen. Ismael Qaani is a 62-year-old expert on clandestine operations and is an experienced Quds Force deputy who oversaw the regime’s proxies in Afghanistan — from gorilla jihadist groups in the 1980s to most recently the Fatemiyoun Brigade.
Also known as Liwa Fatemiyoun, the militia group formed from vulnerable Afghan Shi’ite refugee teenagers in Iran and were deployed to Syria for front-line support for al-Assad’s forces.
Qaani traveled to Afghanistan in 2018, faking his identity as an Iranian diplomat. Shortly after he took charge of the Quds Force, social media circulated pictures showing him in meetings with Afghan officials. The foreign ministry is investigating his trip.
Furthermore, according to the Afghan intelligence officials, a daughter of Soleimani, with a passport name Zuhra Suleimani, traveled to Kabul in December to visit Shi’ite religious and social centers in Afghanistan that mostly housed the Fatemiyoun recruits, who returned from Syria.
The first countermeasure to thwart Iran’s malign influence in Afghanistan is ensuring an “inclusive political participation.” If excluded from power — as some influential leaders hinted while mourning General Soleimani’s death — some Afghans will abandoned them to Iran and will most likely turn against American interests in the country.
Subsequently, in a result of political settlement, all factions must be integrated into the mainstream Taliban led by Mullah Habatullah Akhonzadah. Predictably, some Taliban commanders who run drug businesses fleeing the political settlement may end up in Iranian hands or will join the Islamic State — both causing a headache for the U.S.
Finally, Iran is widely looking to invest in all fronts to strengthen its political, tactical and cultural base, which not only threatens American interest in Afghanistan, but drives Iran further into the region.
Bashir Safi is former adviser to the Afghan National Security Council, and U.S. Department of Defense in Afghanistan.
Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, firstname.lastname@example.org.