Iranian Weapons in Afghanistan. Again.

by Joshua Foust on 3/10/2011 · 6 comments

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.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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M Shannon March 10, 2011 at 8:45 pm

The Brit SAS were reported to have made the seizure. Nice timing given the 6-7 SAS men captured by rebels in Libya this week.

Grant March 10, 2011 at 10:23 pm

We shouldn’t be too sure that Iran wouldn’t be involved, after all the Iranian leadership can’t be too comfortable right now. A very dangerous political situation at home, the U.S on both borders, an economy so battered that even oil riches can’t totally make up for it and what appears to be increasing odds of a Taliban/anti-American victory that would be equally anti-Iranian. Were I in charge I wouldn’t have a problem siding with both groups to ensure that whoever wins will be too reliant on Iranian help to repeat the 1990s.

CE March 11, 2011 at 8:57 am

I wouldn’t worry about the “107-millimeter rockets, C4 plastic explosives that have been used in some improvised explosive devices, rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms like AK47 assault rifles,” or even the 122-mm rockets that NATO intercepted.

It’s the MANPADS that would make things extra-hairy. The article even states that a Taliban agent allegedly asked the Iranians for shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles; he wasn’t looking for the crappy unguided munitions—he wanted some of the good stuff. Had the Taliban a steady supply of IR-guided SAMs, they’d do to to our Blackhawks, Chinooks and AH-64s what the Mujahideen did to the Mi-24s in the 80’s.

Bobby March 11, 2011 at 10:40 am

You have to let go of unitary actor theory and accept that there are Iranian government officials who are capable of doing things that aren’t consistent with the goals and objectives of the greater regime, at least as you have defined them. The Colombian government doesn’t support the exportation of cocaine into the US, and yet every year “Colombia” exports billions of dollars worth of product to America. It’s only contradictory if you mistakenly assume all Iranians or Colombians to be in lock-step with official policy.

Grant March 12, 2011 at 5:42 pm

There are significant differences though. The Columbian government is heavily reliant on American support while Columbian officials make large sums of money through drugs. All very criminal and economical. In contrast it is very much within the interests of the Iranian government to make the war as costly as possible for the United States while avoiding pushing the nation so far that it decides to attack Iran.
To be sure there are profits to be made in the arms sale but it isn’t so easy to do so independently, Iran has a known history of giving weapons to anti-Israeli/anti-American groups and the odds are simply much better of a secret Iranian policy than of secret Columbian policy. That doesn’t mean it’s definite but we can’t discard the possibility.

Prakash Joseph March 13, 2011 at 3:33 am

I would say 107mm rockets might be good enough to make a push againest the NATO. But what “CE” said is right, NATO should be taking good measures that Taliban doesn’t obtain any man-portable IR guided SAM’s. But i don’t think there is anyone who is financially good enough to deliver such weapons to Taliban. Remember, back in the coldwar U.S spend $1Billion to aid the Taliban againest the Soviets!

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