The commander of United States Forces – Afghanistan, John F. Campbell, told Congress in his most recent testimony that the Taliban is being armed by Iran in order to resist the spread of ISIS into that country. The alliance is a strange one for Iran, given that the Taliban is a Sunni force and Iran typically advances its interests through the cultivation of Shi’a militias aligned with its ideological agenda. Nevertheless, Iran has supported the Taliban as well as other Afghan guerrillas fighting the United States since at least 2007.
With the rise of ISIS, Iran has elected to double down on its support for the Afghan Taliban as the lesser of two evils. ISIS has been successful in its initial strikes against the Taliban, having the benefit of large sums of cash that enable them to pay rich signing bonuses to young men who will join their side. As elsewhere, ISIS has expressed a strong desire to control the women in the regions of Afghanistan it takes over. Women who were allowed to leave home only in burqas are not allowed to leave at all, and ISIS collects lists of unmarried girls and widows to force into marriages with its fighters as part of their reward.
Iran’s support has increased in response. Iran is now paying hundreds of dollars a month as salary to Taliban fighters, and is operating at least four training camps in Afghanistan. Partially as a consequence, the Taliban has attained a strength greater than at any time since they were toppled by the initial US invasion in 2001, according to a United Nations report.
The Taliban insurgency has spread through more of Afghanistan than at any point since 2001, according to data compiled by the United Nations as well as interviews with numerous local officials in areas under threat.
In addition, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan over the past two weeks has evacuated four of its 13 provincial offices around the country — the most it has ever done for security reasons — according to local officials in the affected areas.
The data, compiled in early September — even before the latest surge in violence in northern Afghanistan — showed that United Nations security officials had already rated the threat level in about half of the country’s administrative districts as either “high” or “extreme,” more than at any time since the American invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001.
President Obama has begun to walk back his plan to abandon Afghanistan entirely by the end of his presidency. Military advisers to the President have suggested a force of at least 5,000 peacekeepers remain in the country to prevent it falling back into the hands of the Taliban or even ISIS. It was the President’s decision to abandon Iraq via a precipitous withdrawal that gave rise to ISIS in the first place, because it led to the betrayal of carefully-negotiated agreements with Sunni tribes in western Iraq by the Shia-led government of Prime Minister Maliki. Left a victory in Iraq by his predecessor, the President’s withdrawal removed the guarantor of fair treatment for the Sunnis. ISIS was able to gain and hold territory in Western Iraq in spite of their brutality because the official government was seen as even worse. (See the Center for Security Policy’s strategy for the defeat of ISIS: Cut Down the Black Flag.)
The Taliban’s expansion at this hour was extremely predictable, as the President published his timetable for withdrawal years ago when announcing his troop surge. That surge was brigades smaller than the military had said they would need, and their enemies were given an explicit time frame for which they would need to hold out. Everyone has known for years that America was not going to stay, and that the Taliban was going to come back after American forces departed. This certainty has buoyed up the Taliban’s morale and recruiting for years of tough fighting: American casualties in Afghanistan under Obama have been more than twice what they were under George W. Bush, in a war that President Obama had already announced he did not intend to win.
It now appears that he may leave Afghanistan the way he left Iraq: precipitously, in the hands of a government that depends for its continued existence on Iranian influence, and in a way that furthers the expansion of the Islamic State. The next President will inherit a much more challenging world.