For several years, U.S. officials have alleged that “Iranian weapons” were being supplied to Taliban militants, mostly in Farah and Herat but also elsewhere in the country. Most often, the official would make the charge in the passive voice, leaving it open to interpretation whether the arms shipments—assuming they were even identified correctly—were official Iranian policy or merely origination from other groups in Iran.
I’ve been a consistent critic of these charges (and the casual assumption of “Iranian-backed” to describe Taliban leaders we don’t like)—sure they might happen on a small scale, but does it really make sense for Iran to arm an immediate enemy against a more distant one?
A major reason I disbelieve these charges is Iran has a tremendous amount to gain from a prosperous Afghanistan, and their investments in Hazara and Tajik communities has been among the more successful foreign aid projects of the last eight years… and the Taliban will destabilize and destroy those areas should they gain the upper hand in the war. If they fund the Taliban, who then destroys hundreds of millions of dollars of Iranian investment, the regime has managed to embarrass the United States, true, but at a ludicrous cost that would leave it in the weak and borderline-unwinnable position it found itself in when the Taliban massacred its diplomats in Mazar-i Sharif in 1998. (In 2002, Iranian special forces collaborated with American special forces in the West to drive out Taliban units.)
Channel 4, however, claims to have acquired hard evidence that Iran is, in fact, doing something so astoundingly counterproductive.
The exclusive images and documents show, for the first time, the full extent of Iranian support for the Taliban in the shape of tonnes of weapons of the type being used against UK troops in Helmand province.
Despite the millions of dollars being spent by the international community to ensure cross-border security between Iran and Afghanistan, Channel 4 News has been shown vast hauls of weaponry which Afghan security services have told us are just a fraction of hardware intercepted from Iran on their way to the Taliban.
They claim it shows the true extent of direct support from the Iranian government for the insurgency.
This is enormously damaging, if true. It brings into question the close ties between Hamid Karzai and the Iranian government, as well as the entire nature of the security posture of NATO forces in the South. However, 13 paragraphs in we see:
Nato’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which operates in Herat, said that they did believe there was “limited” Iranian support for the Taliban through weapons and training, however they did not believe that it was at a level that was “decisive” to the outcome of the anti-insurgency effort.
They go on to interview a Taliban commander in Kunduz who says the Iranian government is crucial support for his insurgency because of the pressure Pakistan has placed on militants. But even there, it doesn’t seem as open-and-closed: the commander, for example, says he and his men have to rely on “professional smugglers” to get weapons, money, and so on, which implies there probably isn’t widespread official endorsement of the activity. When they don’t use smugglers they personally carry these items. So where are they buying them in Iran?
Of course, just last month Frontline ran a high-larious story on the Taliban in Baghlan province, just south of Kunduz (they were really HiG, but whatever). Those guys were very obviously run and managed by Pashtuns and Arabs from Pakistan, not Iran.
So at least based on what they have posted online, it doesn’t seem like a slam-dunk case, to borrow a troubled phrase. It is a narrative that plays to American and British assumptions of Iranian perfidy, but despite the cache of weapons on display it doesn’t directly implicate the Iranian government in any of the smuggling—any more than the Taliban operating in Waziristan directly implicates the Pakistani government (that is to say: neither government is monolithic and certainly has factions that behave semi-autonomously). If, however, the Channel 4 documents actually involve official Iranian government in shipping arms to the Taliban as part of a deliberate strategy to “bog down” the U.S., then it would be the first time concrete evidence of their involvement has been shown. And if that actually happens, then we have a rather big deal on our hands.