The Guardian – Officials claim there is a new stream of support for the insurgency coming from Iran: Knock-kneed with fear, the young prisoner perched on the edge of his chair in the windowless Afghan intelligence office. Eyes bloodshot and hands trembling, he blurted out his story.
Officials claim there is a new stream of support for the insurgency coming from Iran
Declan Walsh in Ghazni
Knock-kneed with fear, the young prisoner perched on the edge of his chair in the windowless Afghan intelligence office. Eyes bloodshot and hands trembling, he blurted out his story.
Abdullah had reached the end of a pitifully short career as a Taliban fighter. He had been arrested hours earlier, just 10 days after signing up to the insurgency. But the 25-year-old with a soft face and a neat beard had something unusual that aroused the intelligence agents’ curiosity.
“I come from Iran,” he said in a quavering voice, wringing his hands nervously. “They told me the Americans had invaded Afghanistan and I should go and fight jihad. But I was cheated. Now I am very sorry that I ever left.”
As a hurricane of Taliban violence tears across Afghanistan – the latest suicide bombing killed 10 people in Kabul on Saturday – accusations of foreign support have centred on Pakistan, where fighters can shelter, organise and rearm.
But recently Afghan and western officials have started to detect a second, albeit far smaller, stream of support from within Afghanistan’s other powerful neighbour, Iran.
Military and diplomatic sources said they had received numerous reports of Iranians meeting tribal elders in Taliban-influenced areas, bringing offers of military or more often financial support for the fight against foreign forces. The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the meetings took place in Helmand province, where more than 3,000 British troops are based, and neighbouring Nimroz, a lawless desert province bordering eastern Iran.
Although the reports are hard to confirm due to security fears, officials say the direction of flow is unmistakable. “There’s definitely an Iranian hand,” insisted one western official, who said the phenomenon was being quietly monitored by western intelligence and militaries. A top-ranking Afghan military official said he had received similar information. “The Iranians were offering money and weapons. This is a very sensitive issue,” he said.
Identifying the source of the clandestine support is difficult. One foreign official with long experience in Afghanistan singled out Baluch militants from eastern Iran. The Baluch nationalists are violently struggling against the Tehran government and are also believed to be involved in the drugs trade. Iranian Baluchistan is one of the prime smuggling routes for heroin, so instability in Afghanistan – where nearly the entire world supply is sourced – is in the smugglers’ interest. They also have ideological ties with the Taliban, especially through Jundullah (Soldiers of God), a militant group with an extremist interpretation of Islam.
Far more controversial are possible links with the Iranian state. One official with long experience in southern Afghanistan said elders from Nad Ali district in Helmand told him they had been visited by an Iranian intelligence officer six weeks ago. “They say he stayed two nights, trying to indoctrinate them and offering support,” he said. As tensions rise between Tehran and the US over the nuclear issue, such interference makes geo-strategic sense. Continued turmoil in Afghanistan keeps the 40,000 foreign soldiers stationed there, half of them American, very busy.
But others discount Iranian dirty tricks as being highly unlikely. When in power during the late 1990s, the Sunni-dominated Taliban were at daggers drawn with Iran’s Shia government, which funnelled aid to the Taliban’s enemies. Since 2001, Tehran has closely allied itself with President Hamid Karzai, sending aid and cooperating closely on combating cross-border drug smuggling. Iran is one of Afghanistan’s biggest trading partners and the border crossing near the western city of Herat is a major economic lifeline. Every day hundreds of visa applicants queue outside the Iranian embassy in Kabul, many of them economic migrants looking for work. The most striking thing about rumours of Iranian interference, one western official in Kabul said, “is how little we hear of them”. If it wanted to, Iran could play havoc in Afghanistan, he continued, “but my impression is they are holding back, that they haven’t played their cards”. Attention is concentrated on Pakistan which, along with Afghanistan’s weak police and corrupt government, is seen as a major driver of the insurgency. In London last week, President General Pervez Musharraf angrily denied allegations his ISI spy agency is supporting the Taliban.
Ten days ago Barnett Rubin, an academic and expert on Afghanistan, warned the US Senate that “anyone who tries to sell you intelligence reports that Iran is destabilising Afghanistan is misrepresenting the facts”. Pakistan is the principal factor in the destabilisation of Afghanistan, he said, “regardless of the fact that President Musharraf speaks good English, wears a suit and says things that we like to hear”.
Whatever the truth about official support, it is clear the Taliban has ideological soul-mates in Iran. Abdullah’s journey to jihad, from a quiet town in western Iran to the battlefield of Afghanistan, suggests the conflict has started to attract freshly indoctrinated foreigners and their shadowy mentors.
In the dingy intelligence office in the central Ghazni province, the distraught young man told his story. Abdullah said he had left his home in Kamyaran in the western province of Kurdistan six weeks earlier, telling his family he was going to Tehran to work. Instead he continued hundreds of miles east until he reached the desert city of Zahedan and slipped across the Afghan border. All he carried was an address given him by a jihadi leader named Abdullah Shafi, he said.
Shafi, a Kurdish militant from northern Iraq, is a former leader of Ansar al-Islam, a Taliban-like group with links to al-Qaida. After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Shafi became known for despatching suicide bombers to Baghdad. Although Shafi was subsequently expelled from Iran, Abdullah said his organisation is still recruiting fresh militants – like him.
Abdullah was sent to a secret training camp near the Iraqi border that he believed was run by the Iranian government. “They gave us weapons, money and accommodation, and made sure we would not be arrested,” he said. “Our government doesn’t like America. It wants to install a Shia government in Iraq like in Iran. It is doing its best to achieve that.”
Most graduates at the camp were destined for Iraq or Lebanon, Abdullah said – 19 of his 20 classmates were subsequently sent to Iraq – but Abdullah Shafi told him to go to Afghanistan. Travelling alone, he claimed, he made his way to Ghazni, a once peaceful central province, by early September and knocked on the door of a Taliban organiser named Mansoor. After a brief interrogation, Mansoor confiscated his Iranian identity card and gave him a bed. But when a group of Taliban fighters turned up late that night, Abdullah said, they refused to take him with them. “They said I would be caught because I didn’t have a gun,” he said.
But days later, while US bombers pounded the area, Abdullah and a Taliban fighter were arrested and brought to the NDS intelligence services offices. It was impossible to confirm his story, although he spoke in Iranian-accented Farsi and officials corroborated the details of his capture. If true, his account supports a report that argues Iraq is shaping “a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives”. Last week the National Intelligence Review, a group of 16 US intelligence agencies, said the Iraq conflict “would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere”.
But in the dingy Ghazni office where Abdullah waited to be transferred to Kabul, there was little bravado or talk of jihad. “I am so sorry,” he said, seeming on the verge of tears. “I regret ever leaving home. I just want to be released.”
Although dominated by Pashtun tribesmen from south Afghanistan, the Taliban draws on sponsors and influences from many countries. During a battle in Kandahar last month, Nato intelligence detected Arab, central Asian and Pakistani fighters among their ranks. The surge in suicide attacks and roadside bombs this year has been linked to the Iraq conflict. Westerners trying to track their funding see links with wealthy, religiously conservative businessmen in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia. But the Taliban’s greatest source of support comes from closer to home.
Pakistan’s ISI spy agency nurtured the Taliban in the 1990s and helped it seize power in 1996. After 9/11, President Musharraf severed the link but that didn’t stop hundreds of Taliban fleeing into Pakistan’s tribal belt. Many are still there, a fact Afghan and western military officials says has been critical to the insurgency’s comeback this year. President Musharraf is less convinced. After admitting to cross-border infiltration during a recent trip to Kabul, he seemed to change his mind by the time he reached the US last week. Nato chief Gen James Jones’ claim that the Taliban were headquartered in Quetta, west Pakistan, was “the most ridiculous statement”, he said.