Last week, Brigadier General Abdul Razzaq, the well-known Achekzai warlord and Provincial Police Chief for Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, made some bold claims about Iranian involvement in Afghanistan. From Pajhwok Afghan News:
The police chief for southern Kandahar province on Thursday blasted Iran for overtly supplying weapons to the Taliban.
Brig. Gen. Abdul Razzaq told reporters in Kandahar City the neighbouring country aided the insurgents clandestinely in the past. But now it is openly supporting the militants.
Security forces had recently captured 50 made-in-Iran assault rifles during recent operations in Kandahar, Uruzgan and Zabul provinces, he claimed.
“In the past, Iran secretly sent arms to Afghan fighters via Quetta, the capital of Pakistan southwestern province of Balochistan,” the police chief said.
But the arms supplies are now openly routed through Nimroz province as well as Jungle area, according to Gen. Razzaq, who said they were trying to curb Taliban’s attacks in Kandahar.
While Razzaq’s claims are possibly true and circumstantially backed by the seizure of Iranian-made small arms, claims of widespread Iranian involvement in Kandahar must always be screened for political motivations, exaggeration, and context.
Over my years of interviewing local leaders, indigenous military officials, and everyday citizens about insurgency in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I’ve found that a consistent theme emerges: the almost reflexive blaming of foreigners for local insecurity. To have heard many Iraqis tell it circa 2006-2008, most of the insurgency was caused by Iranians, Syrians, and Saudis (and even Jordanians and Turks, and their governments, came in for few mentions). And in Afghanistan, every single time I’ve asked someone who the enemy is, the response has been to to blame Afghanistan’s problems on its neighbors. Before an interpreter distills any Dari or Pashto statement into English, the words “Pakistan” and, less often, “Iran” ring out like bells.
In Iraq, there was a great deal of truth to the claims of foreign influence. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership, financiers, and suicide bombers were a brew of Saudis, Libyans, Egyptians, Jordanians, and many other nationalities. In Sunni Fallujah circa 2007, US forces targeted a jihadist cell of Somalis, hunted a “Chechen sniper” whose nationality some speculated was a myth, and even caught an Iranian agent carrying $10,000 in cash presumably to fund Sunni insurgents cells at the behest of the Shia Revolutionary Guard. But even so, many Iraqi assessments of foreign influences were exaggerated, and only true in the context that the overwhelming majority of the insurgency was staffed and led by Iraqis. This aspect of local dominance rarely made it into initial answers to my interview questions about the nature of the insurgency.
Afghans almost universally blame Pakistan and Iran for meddling
It is much the same in Afghanistan. Politicians, military personnel, and citizens always blame Pakistan, and many, at least during my recent trip to Kandahar, also blame Iran. As was the case in Iraq, there is a lot of truth to these claims, especially the assertions from Afghans about Pakistan.
It is well-documented here at The Long War Journal that the Taliban headquartered in Quetta is part of a proxy war strategy employed by elements of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and military, which combat some components of the Taliban in its tribal territories while providing sanctuary to or abetting other elements of the group who commute to fight in Afghanistan. Additionally, the involvement in Afghanistan by terror groups groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, which are backed by Pakistan’s military and intelligence establishment, is less known but no less real. Pakistani meddling in Afghanistan is almost universally recognized by Afghans, who fiercely resent the influence of intelligence officers and clerics who send radicalized cannon fodder across the border to wreak havoc in their country.
The ubiquity of Afghan claims about significant Iranian influence was new to me on my trip to Kandahar this year, however; in Panjwai district, nearly everyone brought up Iran as an enemy as well as Pakistan. In contrast, during my trips to Khost province in 2011 and Helmand province in 2010, Iran was named as a cause of the instability far less often.
Iran has long been known to have placed proxy bets in Afghanistan, especially during the rise of the Taliban: Iranian intelligence went to the lengths of directly backing a number of mujahideen groups, often training and sometimes evacuating their fighters from the battlefield, and one Afghan soldier and former mujahid recalled “watch[ing] the Iranian planes drop off weapons” during his organization’s fight against the rising Taliban tide in the 1990s.
And there is certainly merit to post-2001 claims that Iran has supported the Afghan insurgency. The US Treasury Department’s designation of two senior officers in the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps – Qods Force in 2010 details some of Iran’s activities in Afghanistan. The Ansar Corps, a Qods Force sub command, has “responsibilities [that] include IRGC-QF activities in Afghanistan,” the Treasury stated. The Ansar Corps Commander, General Hossein Musavi, as well as a Qods Force colonel, Hasan Mortezavi, have “provided financial and material support to the Taliban.”
Additionally, Iranian involvement in Afghanistan is reflected in ISAF and Afghan military operations against the Taliban. ISAF and Afghan forces have targeted Iranian-supported Taliban commanders in at least 14 raids in western and southern Afghanistan between June 2009 and February 2011, according to press releases compiled by The Long War Journal. One of those raids took place in the Zhari district in Kandahar province in December 2010; the high-value target was linked to Iran’s Qods Force. ISAF inexplicably stopped reporting on raids against Iranian-supported Taliban commanders in early February 2011, however, and LWJ‘s queries to ISAF on this subject have gone unanswered [see LWJ report, Taliban suicide assault team kills 36 Afghans in western city].
Amrullah Saleh, former head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) intelligence service, has characterized Iran’s involvement as a combination of soft power aimed at stabilizing Afghanistan’s government and maintaining good relations with Kabul, as well as maintenance of “links with proxy groups capable of striking US Interests in the region.” That said, Iranian influence in Afghanistan is a shadow of Pakistan’s efforts, and some US intelligence officials assert that they see little evidence of recent Iranian proxy operations in Kandahar province.
“We have not seen any substantial indicators of effort from Iran,” said Captain Paul Lushenko, the intelligence officer for the 4th Battalion, 9th Infantry Regiment stationed in Panjwai, during an April interview. “[Significant indicators of effort would] include movement of weapons or supplies, or a shift in [insurgent] TTPs [tactics, techniques and procedures] like the use of EFPs [explosively formed penetrator IEDs, often deployed against Americans in Baghdad by Iran’s proxies] or DFFCs [directional focus fragmentation charges].”
Regarding other foreign influences in Afghanistan, Lushenko asserted that the presence of “a handful” of foreign fighters in Kandahar persists, “mostly from the Stans or places like the Islamic Maghreb,” but made the case that the bulk of the insurgency’s foot soldiers, while abetted by Pakistani forces across the border, are not truly “foreign.”
“The fighters we see coming from Pakistan are not what [the US military] would define as ‘foreign fighters,'” he explained. “[This is] because of the interconnectedness of family contacts between [Kandahar and] Pakistan, and because many Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan from the Russian occupation.”
Lushenko’s observation about the close ties between Pakistan and southern Afghanistan is of course correct, particularly in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. But the quantity of truly “foreign fighters” is arguably much less important than their impact. A number of international financiers funnel large resources to the Taliban forces fighting ISAF and Afghan government forces; and embedded foreign trainers, such as explosives experts with al Qaeda’s paramilitary “Shadow Army,” have a disproportionate effect that ripples through the Afghan insurgency.
Behind the blame game
Despite necessary context about foreign influence and the extent to which the Taliban is dominated by a local labor pool, Afghans in Panjwai and in wider Kandahar remain almost universal in blaming “Pakistan” and “Iran” for the insecurity. The tendency to hold foreigners responsible while downplaying Afghan involvement doubtless stems partly from local pride, xenophobia, and smart politics — many leaders are aware of local antipathy toward outsiders and feel compelled to reconcile with local Taliban elements in order to achieve security.
The insurgency in the province has been influenced mainly by local Taliban. Many of the Taliban’s military council leaders are Afghans (notably Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, the organization’s top military leader, is from Kajaki in Helmand province, and his primary rival within the organization, Mullah Akhtar Mansur, is an Ishakzai tribesman from Kandahar); and at least eight of the Taliban’s cabinet ministers and governors during the movement’s heyday in the 1990s hailed from Panjwai itself.
Nevertheless, broad assessments of foreign influence in Panjwai are rooted in reality. There is a radical religious structure in Pakistan that churns out an endless supply of foot soldiers for jihad in Afghanistan; the heart and leadership of the Taliban insurgency does sit in Quetta; and elements of the Taliban and associated jihadist networks are often directly aided by elements of the Pakistani military and intelligence services.
The continuing sanctuary and support given to the Taliban by the nuclear nation-state of Pakistan has massive implications for the sustainability of any security in Kandahar and in Panjwai district specifically. Unless extremists and their Pakistani abettors are addressed diplomatically or militarily, the only thing likely to keep the Taliban from resurgence after ISAF withdrawal, despite the group’s recent setbacks in Panjwai, will be a drawn-out proxy war between the Pakistani-aided Taliban against Afghan forces necessarily backed by a foreign power. Most of the more practical leaders in Kandahar and elsewhere in Afghanistan recognize this need for continued support, and fervently hope that international involvement will persist past the official withdrawal of US combat forces in 2014.
Regardless of support from the West, the Afghans I spoke to in Panjwai seemed to hold the unshakable belief that they could quickly resolve Afghanistan’s security issues in the absence of meddling from across the border, be it Pakistani or Iranian.
“Stop influence from Pakistan, and I promise you, we could fix Afghanistan’s problems in one month,” lectured Major Hajji Lala Amadullah, the executive officer for the Panjwai district uniform police, in an April interview. This assessment was similarly offered by his boss, multiple Afghan Army officers, the district governor, local maliks, and everyday farmers in Panjwai.
Amadullah’s timeframe may be greatly exaggerated and his assertions require caveats. But he’s not exactly wrong.
Bill Ardolino’s book, Fallujah Awakens: Marines, Sheikhs, and the Battle Against Al Qaeda, which tells the story of the tribal Awakening in 2006-2007 that changed the course of the Iraq War, was recently published by Naval Institute Press. The book has received a ‘starred’ review from Publishers Weekly. All of the author’s proceeds benefit the Semper Fi Fund for injured service members.
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