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Sunday 05 August 2007
British troops in Helmand province fighting the Taliban face a new danger as sophisticated Iranian weapons and explosives are being smuggled into Afghanistan.
In the dusty frontier town of Islam Qala, near Herat, on the Afghan side of the border with Iran, weapons and explosives such as armour-piercing roadside bombs are being trafficked to the insurgents.
The news that Taliban rebels are being armed with Iranian-supplied weapons poses an added threat to the 5,000 British troops battling insurgents in southern Afghanistan. “I have to tell the truth. It is clear to everyone that Iran is supporting the enemy of Afghanistan, the Taliban,” Colonel Rahmatullah Safi, head of border police for western Afghanistan, told The Sunday Times.
Afghan intelligence sources believe that many deals between the Taliban and the Iranians are conducted through a drug smuggler in southern Afghanistan who acts as a middle man. He is from the minority Baluch tribe; as well as smuggling heroin through Iran to Europe, he is also believed to have bought weapons off the Iranian government and sold them on to the Taliban.
The deadliest weapons known to cross the border are Iranian-made armour-piercing explosives. Colonel Thomas Kelly, an American under the command of Nato, said that the explosives that have been used to deadly effect in Iraq have been found recently in western Afghanistan.
“These are very sophisticated IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and they’re really not manufactured in any other place to our knowledge than Iran,” he said, adding that the explosives were factory made. He stopped short of saying they were supplied by the Iranian government.
Along with supplies of Kalashnikov assault rifles and mortars, Afghan military sources fear that the Iranians may also have supplied heat-seeking missiles. International forces rely heavily on helicopters to transport troops as the roads are too dangerous to drive along, but they are especially vulnerable to this kind of weaponry.
It was the introduction of western-supplied Stinger missiles that brought the Soviet army to its knees during its ill-fated 10-year campaign in Afghanistan. Many of these weapons are now dated, however, and the Stingers are no longer operational. What is of particular concern to British and US troops is that the Taliban could get their hands on the modern Manpad (man-portable air defence system), a highly mobile shoulder-launched surface-to-air missile.
The American government has accused Iran’s Quds force, an elite arm of the Revolutionary Guards, of arming and training Shi’ite extremist groups in Iraq. Afghan officials fear that Iran has overcome its theological differences with the largely Sunni Taliban to fight a bigger enemy.
“The Taliban are Sunni extremists and the Iranians definitely don’t want them to take control of Afghanistan again, but right now they support them as there is a bigger enemy, America. The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” said Haji Rafiq Shahir, a law professor at Herat University.
A western official in Kabul said he was aware that the Iranian government had offered weapons to the Taliban: “The Iranian government offered weapons for free but the Taliban refused as they didn’t want to be beholden to them.”
The official added that he was unaware of any specific arms sales, but added: “From an Iranian position it’s easy to feel encircled, particularly when you consider they are paranoid to begin with. They see the British as the manipulative Machiavellian characters and the Americans as our dim cousins who carry out the dirty work for us.”
Iranian paranoia is enhanced by the American bases springing up along Afghanistan’s western border in Herat and Shindand along with the British base, Camp Bastion, in Helmand.
Mohammad Reza Bahrami, the Iranian ambassador to Kabul, has strongly denied all accusations that his country is supplying weapons to insurgents. He claimed that Iran is one of the biggest donors to the troubled nation.
Taliban rebels and South Korea are seeking a neutral meeting place to thrash out an agreement to release 21 hostages held for more than two weeks.
News that the Koreans are willing to meet the Taliban will come as a relief to the hostages, most of them women. Two male hostages have already been killed.
The Afghan government says it will not free Taliban prisoners.