(CNSNews.com) – The death of the leader of the Taliban in a U.S. drone strike has turned a fresh spotlight onto the Afghan terrorist group’s relationship with Iran, whose ties despite being of different sects have long concerned the U.S. military.
In a statement protesting the missile strike on a vehicle in its sovereign territory, Pakistan’s foreign ministry revealed that the slain person – believed to be Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour – was killed within hours of entering Pakistan from Iran.
It said that one of two dead people in the vehicle was carrying a Pakistani identity card and passport and had entered Pakistan at the Taftan border crossing – on the Pakistan-Iran border – on Saturday local time. The Pentagon reported the drone strike later the same day.
“His passport was bearing a valid Iranian visa,” the foreign ministry said. “He was traveling on a vehicle hired from a transport company in Taftan.”
The statement said the passport was in the name of “Wali Muhammad S/o [son of] Shah Muhammad.”
The car was destroyed – according to Afghan chief executive officer Abdullah Abdullah – in the vicinity of the Pakistani town of Dalbandin. That lies roughly 190 miles east, or about a three-hour drive, from the Taftan border crossing.
The Pakistani foreign ministry statement did not identify the dead person as Mansour but said further investigations were underway based on “evidence found at the site of the incident and other relevant information. It named a second person killed in the vehicle, whom it said was the driver, as Muhammad Azam. His body had been identified and collected by relatives, it added.
“Pakistan wishes to once again state that the drone attack was a violation of its sovereignty, an issue which has been raised with the United States in the past as well,” the ministry statement concluded.
Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters traveling with him in Burma that the U.S. had “notified” both Pakistani and Afghan leaders of the airstrike – with him having made the call personally to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Kerry declined to elaborate on the timing of that notification but Sharif, speaking during a visit to London, said he had been informed of the Taliban leader’s death after the event.
Pakistan’s critics have long accused it of ongoing collusion with the Taliban, a decade and a half after Islamabad – under strong U.S. pressure – formally cut ties with the fundamentalist militia after 9/11.
Ties between Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni Taliban has been more nuanced. In the late 1990s – when the Taliban ruled most of Afghanistan – Iran threatened to attack after nine of its diplomats, based at an Iranian consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, were killed during the Taliban’s capture of the northern city.
Several years after the U.S. toppled the Taliban in the months after 9/11 Tehran shifted tack, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) started providing some Taliban elements with IEDs used against U.S. and coalition forces. According to the Department of Defense this began in 2006 if not earlier.
By 2010, the Pentagon was reporting to Congress – in an annual report on Iranian military power – that “[a]rms caches have been recently uncovered [in Afghanistan] with large amounts of Iranian manufactured weapons, to include l07mm rockets, which we assess IRGC-QF delivered to Afghan militants.”
“While it is difficult to determine the exact time the arms were brought into Afghanistan, their recent manufacture date suggests lethal support is ongoing,” it said, adding that the Iranian support was potentially increasing the terrorists’ operating capabilities.
In 2011, then-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) commander Gen. David Petraeus told Congress that the IRGC-QF rockets intercepted in Afghanistan had more than double the range and power of those more typically seen in the country.
Subsequent DoD annual reports described Iran’s policy in Afghanistan as “multifaceted,” noting it was both supporting the then-Hamid Karzai government and “various insurgent groups” fighting against it.
The 2012 report said that “[a]lthough Tehran’s support to the Taliban is inconsistent with their historic enmity, it complements Iran’s strategy of backing many groups to maximize its influence while also undermining U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) objectives by fomenting violence.”
Two years later a Pentagon report on Afghanistan said that the IRGC-QF “provides calibrated lethal aid to the Taliban to attrite ISAF and expedite force withdrawal.”
The most recent reference in annual State Department terror reports to Iran-Taliban collusion appeared in 2012, when it said “the IRGC-QF trained Taliban elements on small unit tactics, small arms, explosives, and indirect fire weapons, such as mortars, artillery, and rockets.”
In 2014, Iran began allowing the Taliban to operate an office in the city of Mashhad, opposite the north-western Afghan province of Herat.
The following year, a Taliban delegation was reported to have visited Iran, and a spokesman for the Afghan group said it was not the first such visit. Around that time, Taliban sources told Afghan media outlets that the group and Iran shared concerns about the spread of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL) in Afghanistan.
But now it emerges that the leader of the Taliban has paid at least one visit to Iran, which ended just hours before his death.
Iranian state media reported on Mansour’s death, but without reference to his visit to Iran.
Mansour was named “emir” last July after it was learned that the group’s original leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, had been dead for two years.
Despite hopes that a new leadership would breathe new life into a moribund “reconciliation” process, the Taliban under Mansour continued and even stepped up attacks, amid reports of differences among various factions. An assault on a security compound in Kabul last month cost the lives of dozens of Afghans and injured hundreds more.
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Dawlat Waziri told reporters in Kabul Sunday that Mansour was “irreconcilable” and unwilling to sign up to a peace process.
In Burma, Kerry made a similar point, saying Mansour “was neither encouraging people to talk nor supporting the talks nor supportive of reconciliation.”
“The president of Afghanistan has made it clear that he’s prepared to have talks. We are prepared to have talks,” he said. “But if people want to stand in the way of peace, continue to threaten and kill and blow people up, we have no recourse but to respond, and I think we responded appropriately.”