Iran TerrorismINTERVIEW-U.S. urges Iran to help not hinder Afghan peace

INTERVIEW-U.S. urges Iran to help not hinder Afghan peace

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ImageReuters: The U.S. commander of international forces in Afghanistan accused Iran of supporting the Taliban insurgency and urged Tehran to join international efforts to bring peace to its eastern neighbour.

By Simon Denyer

ImageKABUL, March 6 (Reuters) – The U.S. commander of international forces in Afghanistan accused Iran of supporting the Taliban insurgency and urged Tehran to join international efforts to bring peace to its eastern neighbour.

"We believe there is certain training support, funding support and there is certain complicity in the narcotics trade," General David McKiernan said on Friday.

But McKiernan said he had not seen the introduction in the last year of sophisticated Iranian military equipment of the kind that was sent to Iraq, nor had any Iranian trainers been caught.

Iran also had "legitimate" cultural, economic, religious and political ties with its eastern neighbour, he said, adding: "I am hopeful that Iran can be part of the solution as opposed to being part of the problem."

The United States said on Thursday it intended to invite Iran to an international conference on Afghanistan this month, the first overture from the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama.

Shi'ite Iran is not a comfortable ally of the hardline Sunni Taliban, but may be providing some support to tie down and irritate U.S. forces in Afghanistan, analysts say.

McKiernan said he hoped the 17,000 additional troops the United States is sending to Afghanistan, bringing the total to 55,000, would help secure the presidential election if it was held in August, and break a "stalemate" with the Taliban in the south of the country.

He said he hoped a total of 30,000 more troops would arrive before the end of the year, but troops alone were not enough to "break the will of the insurgency".

TIPPING POINT

McKiernan said he was concerned about governance, corruption was a major problem, employment creation was vital and the literacy rate of just 30 to 35 percent remained too low.

He urged his allies to bring more resources to bear to bring development to Afghanistan — especially those NATO countries where popular opinion made it difficult to send more troops.

"There are a variety of ways you can contribute to this campaign," he said.

"Those countries that don't necessarily have the political mandate or the capacity to contribute military capabilities could contribute to civilian capacity building, could contribute educational capacity building, could contribute funding."

In any case, there was no quick fix, he warned, and it would be some time before foreign forces could retreat into the background, into "training and mentoring" local security forces.

"We are some years away from what I call the 'tipping point', where Afghan institutions specifically the Afghan security forces, the police and the army, are able to take the lead for their security," he said.

McKiernan said he was hopeful that tipping point might be seen in three to five years, but said there were many other variables which would come into play — not least the situation in Pakistan's tribal areas where many militants shelter.

"The objective of the counter-insurgency campaign in Afghanistan cannot be achieved unless there is a degree of stability in these tribal areas of Pakistan," he said.

McKiernan said he hoped more troops on the ground would help reduce the need for airstrikes — hugely unpopular among Afghans for the civilian casualties they inflict — in some parts of the country, but not where the terrain was particularly tough.

Nor would he offer any guarantee that civilian casualties would not rise as more U.S. troops entered the country and tried to clear Taliban militants from more territory.

McKiernan rejected complaints by human rights groups about the behaviour of foreign forces in Afghanistan and what Amnesty International has called a "culture of impunity".

"It is a hugely difficult environment to operate in, and those organisations that think you can avoid all civilian casualties in this environment are not connected to reality." (Additional reporting by Jon Hemming; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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