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By Abdulhadi Hairan
KABUL – In public, Afghan officials say Iran is helping to rebuild their war-ravaged country, but privately many Afghan officials accuse Iran of aiding the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Insurgents are receiving training in Iran before it sends them to Afghanistan to stage attacks, an official of the Afghan National Army (ANA) in western Afghanistan told Central Asia Online. Forces have seized evidence, including major caches of Iranian weapons, during operations against the militants, he said.
A lack of resources and personnel is one reason the Afghan government cannot block Iranian infiltration, said the ANA officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Another reason, he explained, is Iran’s cultural and economic sway in much of Afghanistan, particularly in Herat, Farah, Nimroz and Badghis provinces.
However, Iran has been supplying the Taliban in other provinces too, he said. He and other officials cited Kabul and Ghazni in the central zone, Kunduz and Balkh in the north, and Helmand and Kandahar in the south as other destinations for Iranian weapons.
This accusation also surfaced at the recent National Consultative Peace Jirga held in Kabul June 2-4. About 1,600 delegates, including lawmakers, members of the cabinet, local officials, and representatives of civil society and women’s rights organisations, attended.
Nearly all of the speakers –including Sebghatullah Mujaddedi, a former Afghan president and currently chairman of the Senate – blamed Iran for providing weapons and training to the Taliban and other insurgents. They criticised Pakistan for the same reasons.
Achieving peace and stability in Afghanistan will always be a fantasy if Pakistan and Iran don't stop providing weapons, training and safe havens to the terrorists, Gul Badshah Majedi, chairman of one of the jirga's 28 committees, told the delegates.
“Effectively countering the insurgency in a country is always a problem if an immediate neighbour of that country provides safe havens to the insurgents”, said Esmat Qani, a political analyst in Kabul. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees have been living in Iran and Pakistan for the past two decades and, because of Iran’s cultural and economic influence on them, are vulnerable to exploitation, he told Central Asia Online.
The Revolutionary Guards of Iran has direct ties with many insurgent groups, an Afghan official who once belonged to the Taliban and now serves in the Hamid Karzai-led administration, told Central Asia Online.
The Taliban ruled Kabul from 1996-to 2001. At that time, Iran was an archenemy of the Taliban, mainly because the Taliban and their supporters – al-Qaeda, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – were Sunni Muslims, while Iran supported the Hazaras, Afghanistan’s Shiite minority. Another reason was purely political: the Taliban had ambitions beyond Afghanistan, which Iran wanted to contain.
Iran has many reasons to back the militants, said Ahmad Shah Pasoon, head of the Institute of War and Peace Reporting in Helmand, the southern Afghan province where officials blame both Pakistan and Iran for supporting the Taliban.
“First of all, Iran, like Pakistan, has strategic interests in Afghanistan. The Iranians want to have influence over the population while seeking a strategic presence here. That is a long-term quest”, he said. “In the short term, Iran wants to bleed the (coalition) forces in Afghanistan to weaken their presence”.
The difference between how Pakistan and Iran treat the Taliban is that Iran keeps the Taliban in control, Pasoon said.
“The Taliban supported by Iran will never be able to capture even one province in Afghanistan. Their major activities are attacking international interests and government infrastructure here, killing officials who oppose Iran’s interests and kidnapping for ransom”.
A former Taliban member who underwent training in Iran but surrendered to the Afghan government in 2009 confirmed this allegation to Central Asia Online. He was living as a refugee in Iran when strangers offered him a handsome salary for joining the Taliban, he said on condition of anonymity.
“I don’t know who they were. They were not Iranians but got support from someone within the Iranian government because they had a lot of money and weapons and moved freely", he said. "They brought me to Herat and trained me for about six months”, he said. “The trainers were Iranians and Pakistanis. Some spoke Arabic too. After the training, we were supplied weapons and were told to carry out attacks on Afghan officials and infrastructure like dams, roads, bridges, etc.”
The Iranian government always has rejected these accusations as “baseless propaganda by the western media and Afghan officials”.
However, an Iranian researcher who works in Tehran, told Central Asia Online that Iran may have been supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan just to block western advances toward the Iranian-Afghan border.
“We don’t want Taliban in Afghanistan, but we also don’t like the idea of seeing international forces building military bases and conducting military operations in our neighbourhood”, he said on condition of anonymity.