On December 18, a press release from the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan reported the arrest of a man described as a “key Taliban weapons facilitator” in the Zharay district of Kandahar province.RELATED:Column One: The Western way of warOpinion: The distracted commander in chief
In the following days, ISAF officials confirmed that the man captured was an operative of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The Quds Force is the clandestine element of the IRGC tasked with facilitating the extensive contacts of the Corps with insurgent movements across the Middle East.
Operatives of the force maintain the Iranian link with Hizbullah. Quds members have been apprehended by US forces in Iraq in the period between 2006 and 2008. However, this was the first recorded case of an operative of the force being detained in Afghanistan.
Except it wasn’t. A subsequent press release issued by ISAF on December 24 determined that the “cross-border weapons facilitator detained December 18 is not a member of the Iranian Quds force, as was originally reported. Initial intelligence reports led ISAF to believe he was a member of the force, but after gathering more information, it was determined that while the individual may be affiliated with several insurgentrelated organizations, he is not a member of the Quds group.” No further details were available.
The capture of a Quds Force operative on Afghan soil would certainly have represented a major achievement for ISAF.
But it would also have been extremely politically sensitive for the Afghan government.
Whatever the particular allegiance of the Kandahar weapons facilitator arrested by ISAF, Iranian assistance to the Taliban and involvement with the drug trade from Afghanistan is extensive and well-documented.
Taliban commanders interviewed in The Times of London earlier this year revealed details of the training of hundreds of Afghan insurgents by Iran.
Taken across the border to the Iranian city of Zahidan, the Taliban men were trained by Quds personnel in mounting ambushes, and in laying the improvised explosive devices which have reaped a heavy toll among NATO personnel in Afghanistan.
In 2007, British special forces intercepted a consignment of roadside bombs as it was being transported into Farah province in Afghanistan from Iran.
Both current ISAF commander Gen. David Petraeus, and his predecessor Gen. Stanley McChrystal, have confirmed Iranian involvement in Afghanistan. Petraeus specifically linked the Iranians to al- Qaida elements who “use Iran as a key facilitation hub, where facilitators connect al-Qaida’s senior leadership to regional affiliates.”
McChrystal, meanwhile, noted the movement of weapons between Iran and Afghanistan, and the training of fighters by Iran.
A recent report in The Long War Journal news site provided further details. According to the report, a sub-command of the Quds Force – the Ansar Corps – has been tasked specifically with aiding the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan. Based in Mashad, Iran, the Corps works in parallel with the Ramazan Corps, which performs a similar function vis-à-vis insurgents in Iraq.
Gen. Hussein Musavi, commander of the Ansar Corps, was this year placed on the US Treasury’s list of specially designated global terrorists, because of his work in providing support for the Taliban.
Yet despite the overwhelming evidence of Iranian support for insurgency in Afghanistan, the issue has remained largely outside of the realm of public discussion.
This is because the Iranians, in the style which should by now be familiar, are combining guns for the insurgency with deft political maneuvering and economic activity.
At the same time as they offer support for the Taliban, Teheran also maintains a robust relationship with the government of Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
It was revealed earlier this year that Karzai’s government had received large cash payments from Iran, presumably in return for political influence.
Cross border trade is brisk.
Landlocked Afghanistan is heavily reliant on Iran for its fuel supplies. These were abruptly and without explanation halted three weeks ago, but have in the last days been resumed. The result of this ambiguous situation is beneficial for Teheran.
Afghan officials, who one might imagine would have an interest in identifying a foreign backer for an insurgency directed against the government they represent, often indignantly reject any suggestion of links between Iran and the Taliban.
The Iranians have demonstrated in Iraq that the best way to achieve political influence is by backing and maintaining relations with a variety of elements, including groups apparently opposed to one another.
The allegations, denials and subsequent retraction regarding the
affiliations of the weapons smuggler apprehended in Zharay last week may
or may not have been the latest fruit of this Iranian practice.
What cannot be denied is that Iranian fingerprints are all over the activities of the Taliban.
There are no ideological similarities between the partners, of course.
the relations are based on a sense of common purpose adequately
expressed by one of the movement’s commanders interviewed by the Times.
“Our religions and our histories are different, but our target is the same,” he said. “We both want to kill Americans.”
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, Herzliya.