KABUL -- Hundreds of Taliban fighters are training at military camps in Iran with two main goals: to weaken the Afghan government and to ramp up the fight against coalition forces in Afghanistan, according to Taliban and Afghan officials.
Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has long meddled in Afghan and regional affairs by providing training, financial and logistical support to militant groups serving Iranian interests.
However, the scope of the current militant training is "unprecedented", London-based The Times reported July 2.
Talks between the Taliban and Iran about sending militants to Iran for six-month combat training began in the spring, according to an unnamed 38-year-old political adviser to the Taliban at its Quetta Shura headquarters in Pakistan.
The Iranians said "we should put more focus on attacking American and NATO interests in Afghanistan," the former bomb maker from Sangin District, Helmand Province, told The Times.
In May, small groups of the Taliban's "brightest and ablest young fighters" started going to military training camps in Iran.
A 25-year-old Taliban commander who goes by the alias Naweed told The Times about his experience at a camp in Kermanshah Province, Iran.
"There are between 500 and 600 of us in different stages of training there," he said from a safe house in Afghanistan while on leave for Eid ul Fitr. "We learn everything from tactics, leadership skills and recruitment to bomb-making and weapons training."
"The instructors are all Iranian special forces, although many seem able to speak Pashtu as a second language," he said.
"Iran has been training Taliban militants for quite some time now," Mohammad Agal Mujahid, a Kabul-based military analyst, told Salaam Times.
"It also supplies them with financial and military facilities, while providing a number of their leaders and commanders with safe havens and [good] living conditions," he said.
"There is no doubt that Iran is training the Taliban in Kermanshah, Zahedan and some other regions of that country," Mujahid said. "Moreover, Iranian generals previously came to Helmand Province to instruct the Taliban's 'Red Unit'."
"Iranian military officials send weapons and ammunition to the Taliban in Afghanistan," Mujahid said. "In order not to expose their military aid to the Taliban, however, they purchase these weapons from other countries and then give them to the Taliban."
"The Afghan government has many documents regarding Iran's relationship with and their support for the Taliban," he said.
"Our policy towards our neighbouring countries is crystal clear," said Shah Hossein Murtazawi, deputy spokesman for Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
"Our territory is not being used against [the interests of] any of our neighbouring countries. We also expect the territory of our neighbouring countries not to be used against us," he told Salaam Times.
"Relationships with our neighbours must be at the government-to-government level," he said.
"Any kind of assistance or contact with terrorist groups ... doesn't contribute to security, peace and stability of the region. On the contrary, it is a serious threat to the whole region," said Murtazawi.
"Terrorism knows no borders or geography, and it is a threat to all countries. Fighting this phenomenon requires co-operation from all countries," he said.
"We are in talks with all neighbouring countries, with the goal in mind of a joint struggle against extremism and terrorism," he said. "We are also talking to Iran... We hope that we can achieve a positive result in our joint struggle against terrorism."
"Iran plays a double role in Afghanistan," Daoud Kalakani, a member of the international relations committee in the Wolesi Jirga (lower house of parliament), told Salaam Times.
"On the one hand, Iran presents itself as a friend of Afghanistan by establishing relations with the Afghan government, while on the other, it ... stabs the Afghan people and government in the back by providing support to the Taliban," he said.
"There is compelling evidence of Iran's interference in Afghanistan's affairs as well as the material and moral support it provides to the Taliban, especially in southwestern Afghanistan," said Aref Kyani, a political analyst in Herat Province. "This support has degraded the security situation in Afghanistan."
Iran's recruitment of soldiers from among Afghan refugees to fight in Syria and now its training of Taliban militants to fight in Afghanistan are "evident and undeniable", he told Salaam Times.
"Chief among the reasons for which Iran trains the Taliban in its military camps and supports them in various ways are [...] the water shortage in Iran; Iranian domination of Afghanistan through the Taliban; and the involvement of the IRGC in drug and human trafficking," Kyani said.
"Iran wants instability and irregularity in our country, so that it can maintain its long-term interests in Afghanistan," Nabi Mesdaq, a political analyst in Kabul, told Salaam Times. "Among these long-term interests are using our country's water resources, mines and gemstones and turning our country into an Iranian consumer market."
How likely is it that the Taliban will fracture after the recent ceasefire exposed divisions in the group?