Iran And Taliban Hook Up To Evict ISIS In Afghanistan

REUTERS/Mohmmad Shoib/Files

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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Despite having a less than cordial history, the Iranian government is directly teaming with Taliban forces to fight Islamic State in Afghanistan.

Iran, which shares a nearly 600-mile-long border with Afghanistan, hopes to create a “buffer zone” in order to mitigate any potential threat from ISIS forces, according to Foreign Policy’s Yochi Dreazen. ISIS currently operates a province, or “wilayat,” in what is known as the Khorasan region of Afghanistan near the Iranian border.

The Islamic Republic’s decision to partner with the Taliban is a strange one. The Sunni Islamic Taliban vehemently disdain the predominantly Shia Iranians, while the Iranian government was a premier sponsor of the Northern Alliance, the Taliban’s former arch rivfal. Despite the sectarian and political differences between the two, they share a common enemy in ISIS.

ISIS theology considers all Shia Muslims heretical, making them natural enemies since the rise of the terrorist group in late 2013 through 2014. In Afghanistan, ISIS has been actively establishing a foothold in Wilayat Khorasan since at least late 2015. ISIS encroachment has caused significant conflict with the Taliban, which is in the midst of trying to make a resurgence in the country.

Despite its name, it is not entirely clear which parts of Afghanistan Wilayat Khorasan actually controls. Historically, the region covers portions of northwest Afghanistan and eastern Iran, yet it appears that ISIS presence is more concentrated in the eastern portions of Afghanistan in the Nangarhar province, which borders Pakistan.

Regardless of where exactly ISIS elements are located in Afghanistan, Iran still sees it as a larger threat than the Taliban. Allowing Wilayat Khorasan to become a significant threat would essentially put Iran in a two-front war against the terrorist group. Iran is already heavily engaged in the fight against ISIS in neighboring Iraq to the west.

“The Iranians are already trying to secure their immediate borders towards Afghanistan against ISIS penetration by working together with various groups — warlords [and] Taliban — along their own borders to create a buffer zone,” said Amb. Franz Michael Mellbin, the European Union’s special representative to Afghanistan, to Foreign Policy.

According to Mellbin, Iran’s concern regarding ISIS in Afghanistan is highly geopolitical, going beyond just immediate security concerns. The Islamic Republic is convinced the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan has been propagated by its regional rival Saudi Arabia.

“If ISIS emerges along their eastern borders, the Iranians will feel that Saudi Arabia is creating a second front,” said Mellbin.

U.S. officials have told Dreazen Iran has already begun directly arming and financing its former Taliban foes. Such a partnership puts the U.S. in a quandary. On the one hand, the U.S. military has stepped up strikes on ISIS targets in Afghanistan in an apparent effort to stem the group’s rise, on the other, the Obama administration must continue to strengthen the Afghan government, which is constantly threatened by the Taliban.

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