Tucked away in Thursday’s announcement by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control that it was “designating” leaders of the Haqqani terror network as foreign terrorists, was a little-noticed statement that the Taliban was sending fighters to Iran to receive military training.
For many years, most foreign policy and intelligence analysts have argued that the sectarian differences between the Taliban and Iran were unbridgeable, and precluded any serious cooperation between the two.
But a recent spate of comments about Iran’s support for the Taliban from top U.S. military leaders, including Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and combat commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, has begun to sway the conventional wisdom in the opposite directly.
The statement focused on three Taliban and Haqqani network financiers operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Nasiruddin Haqqani, a tribal leader in Pakistan; Amir Abdullah, the former treasurer for Taliban’s No. 2 leader, Mullah Baradar; and Gul Agha Ishakzai, the head of Taliban’s financial commission.
"Gul Agha traveled in late 2006 to obtain weapon parts and in December 2005 facilitated the movement of people and goods to Taliban training camps in Iran," the Treasury statement reads.
Until very recently, the U.S. government has not stated openly that Iran was providing military training to the Taliban.
The former commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McCrystal, broke that taboo on May 30, when he revealed that Iran was training Taliban fighters and providing them with weapons.
"The training that we have seen occurs inside Iran with fighters moving inside Iran," McChrystal said at a press conference. "The weapons that we have received come from Iran into Afghanistan."
McChrystal was fired shortly afterwards by president Obama after a profile of him appeared in Rolling Stone magazine that quoted staff members making derogatory comments about Vice President Biden and other administration officials.
In March 2010, a Taliban commander admitted that Iran has been training teams of Taliban fighters in small unit tactics, according to Bill Roggio of the LongWarJournal, an Internet publication dedicated to intelligence matters.
"Our religions and our histories are different, but our target is the same — we both want to kill Americans," the commander said, rebutting the common analysis that Shia Iran and Sunni al Qaida could not cooperate due to ideological differences.
Also in March, Mullen revealed that the U.S. had spotted “a significant shipment of Iranian arms” being sent to Taliban fighters near Kandahar.
Mullen, like many others in the intelligence and military establishment, has gradually reversed himself from earlier statements that Iran could be “helpful” in “stabilizing” Afghanistan because of their hatred for the Taliban.
In a March 2009 backgrounder on Iran and the future of Afghanistan, the Council on Foreign Relations quoted Mullen and Gen. David Petraeus as suggesting that “Washington and Iran could coalesce around stabilizing Afghanistan.”
The CFR report said that bringing Iran into a coalition for stabilizing Afghanistan was part of President Obama’s pledge to offer a “new beginning” to Iran as well as his “new strategy for the Afghan war.”
Both of those policies have run into trouble, with Iran rejecting U.S. overtures and evidence mounting of Iran’s involvement in providing material support for the Taliban.
Earlier this month, ISAF special forces and Afghan commandos killed a wanted Taliban commander named Mullah Akhtar who had strong ties to al-Qaida and to Iran.
Akhtar and an undisclosed number of Taliban fighters were killed in a combined special operations raid on July 16 on a training camp used by foreign fighters in Farah province, according to the LongWarJournal.
In announcing the raid, ISAF said that Akhtar "was responsible for bringing foreign fighters from Iran into Afghanistan.”
ISAF accused Akhtar of having “close ties with Taliban and al-Qaida senior leaders."
The Treasury Department announcement follows an earlier press release in January 2009 revealing that Osama bin Laden’s son and other al-Qaida members were being sheltered by Iran.
For Treasury to announce publicly that the Taliban fighters have training camps in Iran means that the consensus inside the intelligence community on Iran’s relationship to al-Qaida and the Taliban is shifting.
But for more than a decade, intelligence analysts said this type of cooperation could never happen.
In a Dec. 31, 1996 article explaining the Clinton administration’s benign view toward the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan earlier that year, the New York Times reported, “The Taliban have found favor with some American officials, who see in their implacable hostility toward Iran an important counterweight in the region.”
Most important to Washington, the Times reported, “was that the Taliban, who are Sunni Muslims, have a deep hostility for Iran, America's nemesis, where the ruling majority belong to the rival Shiite sect of Islam.”
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