The story is as explosive as ever:
NATO forces in Afghanistan have seized 48 Iranian-made rockets intended to aid the Taliban’s spring battle campaign, the most powerful illicit weapons ever intercepted en route from the neighboring state, officials said Wednesday.
This same story has been told by intelligence officials since 2007. But look at paragraph five:
The rockets, which were shown to an Associated Press reporter, were machined without Iranian markings or any serial numbers, but the official says their technical details match other Iranian models. So far, there is no evidence that the 122-millimeter rockets have been used in Afghanistan, though the Taliban has sometimes used Chinese- and Russian-made rockets of the same range in the fight here, harvested from the multiple weapons caches around the country from Afghanistan’s decades of civil war.
The rockets, like many other weapons shipments blamed on Iran, were intercepted in the southwest, in Nimroz. 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 or using Iran as a transit corridor.
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 remain skeptical 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 ten 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.)
That doesn’t mean Iran has no interest in keeping the U.S. distracted and bleeding from its fight with the Taliban. What remains opaque about this is, to what extent? I’ve yet to see evidence of official, central government involvement in the funding or arming of the Taliban: for the last four years, the amount of weaponry and money has been so small it could have literally come from anywhere. In fact, the only really concrete thing we know about these and previous weapons shipments is that they came through Iran—which is already a smuggling corridor for heroin, people, and other illicit goods.
So while we should take these sorts of charges very seriously, I think, too, we should keep in mind that, despite many years of allegation—at least back to 2007—there has yet to emerge any public evidence to really support the charge that Iran is funding the Taliban.