By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 21, 2007
KABUL, Sept. 20 -- A top NATO commander said Thursday that a shipment of weapons intercepted by international forces in western Afghanistan this month clearly came from Iran and almost certainly was sent here with the knowledge of "at least the Iranian military."
U.S. Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, NATO's senior commander in Afghanistan, said a convoy of weapons captured Sept. 6 in the far western province of Farah, which shares a long border with Iran, was transporting "upscale" roadside bombs that had the hallmarks of those made in Iran and used with lethal regularity against U.S. forces in Iraq.
"Field analysis of those devices that were found profiled them clearly as ones that had been used in Iraq" and that, according to intelligence sources, are manufactured in Iran, McNeill said in an interview.
"I think there is sufficient intelligence to put together a picture that says this convoy that we intercepted the other day, which clearly geographically originated in Iran, and other things that we've encountered -- it would be hard for me to imagine that they had come into Afghanistan without the knowledge of at least the military in Iran," McNeill said.
"Who is that military?" he said. "Likely the Republican Guard Corps, could be the Quds Force part of that," he said, referring to Iran's elite military corps and its unit that specializes in covert operations.
The Washington Post reported over the weekend that international forces had intercepted the convoy in Farah province, a remote and sparsely populated area of desert and swampland, as it apparently was seeking a less-traveled route into Afghanistan.
International forces captured two smaller shipments of sophisticated roadside bombs believed to be from Iran in April and May in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, a stronghold of the Taliban insurgency and one of the most violent areas in the country.
Afghanistan, which is predominantly Sunni Muslim, and Iran, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, share a 581-mile border and have had roller-coaster relations for years, if not centuries. Recently, there have been signs of a limited detente, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai going out of his way to praise and thank the Iranian government for development assistance.
U.S. officials, however, have been building a case against Iran for allegedly trying to destabilize Afghanistan by supplying weapons to the Taliban, an extremist Sunni Muslim and ethnic Pashtun group. The Taliban has been waging an increasingly active insurgency against U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces.
Many analysts believe that Iran, sandwiched between 160,000 U.S. troops based in Iraq to the west and roughly 50,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan to the east, has a keen interest in striking U.S. forces and helping to push them from the region by supplying insurgents in both countries with money, weapons and training.
Iranian officials have denied funneling military aid to insurgents in either country, saying they have good relations with the leaders of Iraq and Afghanistan and have no interest in destabilizing either.
Many independent analysts have questioned U.S. allegations that Iran is shipping arms to the Taliban and have suggested the accusations are part of a campaign by the Bush administration to push for military action against Iran. European officials have said they see no evidence of a large or sustained effort by Iran to supply the Taliban with weapons.
McNeill said there was "no doubt . . . that sometimes in the past, certain Iranian elements have supported the Taliban. Are they still doing it? I don't know." He said Iranians could be motivated by a desire to harm U.S. interests or to bolster security in their border area with Afghanistan or perhaps to somehow interfere with the cross-border drug trade.
"I think it's possible all these things could play into it, but I don't have the silver bullet answer," he said.
While pointing the finger at Iran's military for funneling weapons into Afghanistan, McNeill cautioned, "We didn't say that we could prove they were coming from the Iranian government." But concerning the recently intercepted convoy, he emphasized, "I do not believe it could have originated and come here without the knowledge of the Iranian military."