There are growing signs that Iran may be providing support to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said on June 14 that the flow of weapons from Iran to the Taliban has reached such large quantities that it is difficult to believe it is taking place without the Iranian government's knowledge. U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns went even further, saying that there is "irrefutable evidence" that the shipments were "coming from the government of Iran."
While Iranian support for the Taliban would be disturbing, there is a serious danger of overreaction in the United States. The Taliban receive a negligible amount of support from Iran. Inflating the Iranian role risks the further destabilization of Afghanistan and could jettison a potential avenue for U.S.-Iranian dialogue.
The Iranian strategy in Afghanistan today may best be characterized as a "hedging strategy." The logic is that if Iran can demonstrate an ability to make life worse for the United States on a variety of fronts, including Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States may be deterred from conducting an attack against Iranian nuclear facilities. On top of an array of patron-client relationships with powerful Shiite groups in Lebanon and Iraq, Tehran may be building a new layer of relationships with partners among the Sunni jihadists, including the Taliban.
This is rather surprising since Iran's historical relationship with the Taliban has not been a good one. Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, viewed the rise of the Sunni Taliban in the 1990s with deep concern. In October 1998, some 200,000 regular Iranian troops massed along the border with Afghanistan, and the Taliban mobilized thousands of fighters to thwart an expected Iranian invasion. Only a last-minute effort by the United Nations prevented a war between the Taliban and Iran.
But the prospect of conflict with the United States appears to have temporarily changed Iran's strategic calculations. There are growing signs that Iran may have shipped some arms and other materials to the Taliban.
Gen. Dan McNeill, the top NATO commander in Afghanistan, recently acknowledged that NATO forces have tracked supply convoys from Iran into Afghanistan. In one incident earlier this year, several vehicles were monitored crossing from Iran into western Afghanistan. After engaging the vehicles, NATO forces found that one contained small arms ammunition, mortar rounds and more than 660 pounds of C4 demolition charges. Other convoys from Iran have included rocket propelled grenades, 107mm rockets and improvised explosive devices.
These shipments may be coming from the Quds Force, a paramilitary arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. One of the most disturbing trends is the export of a handful of explosively formed penetrators. They are a special type of shaped charge designed to penetrate armor. The penetrators send a semi-molten copper slug that cuts through the armor on a Humvee, and then creates a deadly spray of hot metal inside the vehicle. Explosively formed penetrators have been used against Israeli forces in Lebanon and against U.S. forces in Iraq.
Support for the Taliban comes from three main sources.
One source is the international jihadi community. Al-Qaida has helped improve Taliban information operations, especially the use of the Internet and video. The Taliban have used al-Qaida's production company, al-Sahab Media, to make videos. Al-Qaida has also helped Afghan groups with suicide tactics and improvised explosive devices. In addition to al-Qaida, the Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups have received funding from wealthy jihadi donors abroad, especially in the Persian Gulf.
A second source of support is from the drug trade. The Taliban and other insurgent groups have levied taxes on farmers in southern and western Afghanistan and secured bribes from drug-trafficking groups at checkpoints. A number of Taliban are also directly involved in the poppy harvest, and are not available to fight until after the harvest ends in the spring.
A final source of support for the Taliban is from outside states. The most significant is Pakistan. Numerous reports indicate that individuals within the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate and the Pakistan military have provided assistance to the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Examples include training at camps in Pakistan, ensuring that wounded insurgents receive medical aid, providing intelligence, delivering weapons and weapons components, and assisting insurgents cross the border.
Iran is a minor player in this broad network of support. The danger with the recent hype of a Taliban-Iranian axis is that U.S. policymakers may neglect pressuring the real sources of Taliban support in Pakistan and the broader Muslim world.
Perhaps more importantly, American officials may overlook a possible area of dialogue with Iran. Iran and the United States worked closely together to create an interim Afghan government after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Today, Iran and Afghanistan share a number of common interests. They have participated in joint trade, energy, investment, cultural, and scientific projects.
Iran provides significant economic assistance to Afghanistan, and political support to the Hamid Karzai government. The Iranians have also cooperated to crack down on the rising Afghan drug trade by building border posts to catch or deter narcotics smugglers.
A strong Sunni Taliban will never be in Iran's long-term interest. And an Afghanistan that further deteriorates into lawlessness could trigger a range of spill-over effects — from increased narcotics trafficking to terrorism — that would negatively impact all countries in the region, including Iran.
Thus far, the U.S. approach to Afghanistan has failed to deal with the insurgency as a broader regional problem that involves Pakistan, India and Iran. Now is a good time to begin.
© 2007 United Press International
Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at the RAND Corp., a non-profit research organization. He is also an adjunct professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University.
This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on July 4, 2007.