WASHINGTON - The Barack Obama
administration has given new prominence to a Bush administration charge
that Iran is providing military training and assistance to the Taliban
in Afghanistan, for which no evidence has ever been produced, and which
has been discredited by data obtained by IPS from the Pentagon itself.
The new twist in the
charge is that it is being made in the context of serious talks between
NATO officials and Iran involving possible Iranian cooperation in
NATO's logistical support for the war against the insurgents in
the early to mid-1990s, Iranian policy in Afghanistan has been more
consistently and firmly opposed to the Taliban than that of the United
The Obama administration thus appears to be pressing
that charge as a means of increasing the political-diplomatic pressure
on Iran over its nuclear programme, despite NATO's need for Iranian
help on Afghanistan.
CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus
declared in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Apr.
1, "In Afghanistan, Iran appears to have hedged its longstanding public
support for the Karzai government by providing opportunistic support to
Defence Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in
Brussels Jun. 12, "Iran is playing a double game" in Afghanistan by
"sending in a relatively modest level of weapons and capabilities to
attack ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) and coalition
The State Department's annual report on terrorism,
published Apr. 30, 2009, claimed that the Iranian Qods Force had
"provided training to the Taliban on small unit tactics, small arms,
explosives and indirect fire weapons." It also charged that Iran had
"arranged arms shipments including small arms and associated
ammunition, rocket propelled grenades, mortar rounds, 107mm rockets,
and plastic explosives to select Taliban members."
offered no evidence in support of those charges, however, and Rhonda
Shore, public affairs officer in the State Department's Office of the
Coordinator for Counterterrorism, refused to answer questions from IPS
about those charges in the report.
A military official who
refused to be identified told IPS the charge of Iranian assistance to
the Taliban is based on "an intelligence assessment", which was limited
to "suspected" Iranian shipment of arms to the Taliban and did not
extend to training. That admission indicates that the charge of
shipments of weapons to the Taliban by Iran is not based on hard
The only explicit U.S. claim of specific evidence
relating to an Iranian arms shipment to insurgents in Afghanistan has
been refuted by data collected by the Pentagon's own office on
In an April 2008 Pentagon news briefing,
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said in
reference to Iranian authorities, "[W]e're seeing some evidence that
they're supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan".
When pressed by
reporters for the evidence, however, Mullen admitted that there was no
"constant stream of arms supply at this point" and that the basis for
the charge was primarily "evidence some time ago" that Iranians were
providing amour-piercing EFPs (explosively formed projectiles) to the
That was a reference to a July 2007 allegation by the
U.S. command in Afghanistan, under obvious pressure from the White
House, that Iranian-made EFPs had appeared in Afghanistan.
Tom Kelly, a U.S. deputy chief of staff of the ISAF, told reporters
Jul. 18, 2007 that five EFPs that had been found in Herat near the
Iranian border and in Kabul were "very sophisticated", and that
"they're really not manufactured in any other places other than, our
knowledge is, Iran".
That was the same argument that had been
used by the U.S. command in Iraq to charge Iran with exporting EFPs to
Shi'a insurgents there.
But in response to a query from this
writer last July, the Pentagon's Joint Improvised Explosive Device
Defeat Organisation (JIEDDO), which is responsible for tracking the use
of roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, provided the first hard data
on EFPs found in Afghanistan. The data showed that there was no
connection on which to base even an inferential connection between
those EFPs and Iran.
Every one of the 13 EFPs reported to have
been found in Afghanistan up to that time were "crude and
unsophisticated", according to Irene Smith, a spokesperson for Gen.
Anthony Tata, JIEDDO's deputy director for operations and training. In
fact, the insurgents in Afghanistan had not shown the ability to make
the kind of EFPs that had been found in Iraq, Smith said.
U.S. command in Afghanistan, moreover, does not appear to be an
enthusiastic supporter of the administration's political line on the
issue. NATO officials began a serious dialog with Iran last March which
focused on the possibility of moving supplies for NATO troops to
Afghanistan from Iranian ports.
At an off the record seminar
in Washington last month, a senior U.S. military officer in Afghanistan
said the Iranian policy toward Afghanistan is neither a "major problem"
nor a "growing problem" for the war against the Taliban, according to
one of the attendees.
The lack of enthusiasm of the U.S. command
in Afghanistan for charges of Iranian support for the Taliban suggests
that the impetus for such charges is coming from those in the
administration who are trying to ramp up the overall pressure on Iran
to make concessions on its nuclear programme.
a specialist on Afghanistan and visiting scholar at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace in Washington, says he sees sharp
differences between the position of those responsible for Afghanistan
and those whose primary concern is Iran's nuclear programme.
have one discourse of officials in Afghanistan, who would support
collaboration with Iran," Doronsoro said in an interview with IPS.
"It's very clear that those people don't want a crisis with Iran and
don't want to push Iran too far."
But those who want to put
pressure on Iran to stop its enrichment programme, he said, "are acting
as though they are building some kind of legal case against Iran."
Bush administration initially claimed it had evidence of Iranian aid to
the Taliban in 2007 that didn't exist, only to have it refuted by the
U.S. command in Afghanistan.
In April and May 2007, NATO
forces in Helmand province found mortars, C-4 explosives and electrical
components believed to have been manufactured in Iran. Then
Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns asserted
that the United States had "irrefutable evidence" that those weapons
were provided to the Taliban by the Qods Force of Iran's Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps.
When State Department spokesman
Sean McCormack was questioned about the Burns statement on Jun. 13,
2007, McCormack admitted that the charge was an inference.
Dan McNeill, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, rejected the
idea that any official Iranian role could be reasonably inferred from
Iranian weapons showing up in Afghanistan.
"[W]hen you say
weapons being provided by Iran, that would suggest there is some more
formal entity involved in getting these weapons here," he told Jim
Loney of Reuters. McNeill said he had "no information to support that
there's anything formal in some arrangement out of Iran to provide
The obvious alternative explanation for Iranian
weapons in arms shipments is that drug lords and the Taliban have used
commercial arms smugglers to get the weapons from Iran into the
country. Arms dealers have close ties with Afghan officials, and have
been reported to use police convoys to carry smuggled arms, according
to a BBC2 television report last September.
*Gareth Porter is an
investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national
security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of
Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was
published in 2006.