In a development that underlines the tensions
between the anti-Iran agenda of the George W. Bush administration and the preoccupation
of its military command in Afghanistan with militant Sunni activism, a State
Department official publicly accused Iran for the first time of arming the Taliban
forces last week, but the US commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan rejected
that charge for the second time in less than two weeks.
Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns declared in Paris Jun. 12 that Iran was
"transferring arms to the Taliban in Afghanistan," putting it in the
context of a larger alleged Iranian role of funding "extremists" in
the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq. The following day he asserted
that there was "irrefutable evidence" of such Iranian arms supply
to the Taliban.
The use of the phrase "irrefutable evidence" suggested that the Burns
statement was scripted by the office of Vice President Dick Cheney. The same
phrase had been used by Cheney himself on Sep. 20, 2002, in referring to the
administration's accusation that Saddam Hussein had a program to enrich uranium
as the basis for a nuclear weapon.
But the NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Dan McNeill, pointed to other possible
explanations, particularly the link between drug smuggling and weapons smuggling
between Iran and Afghanistan.
Gen. McNeill repeated in an interview with US News and World Report
last week a previous statement to Reuters that he did not agree with the charge.
McNeill minimized the scope of the arms coming from Iran, saying: "What
we've found so far hasn't been militarily significant on the battlefield."
He speculated that the arms could have come from black market dealers, drug
traffickers, or al-Qaeda backers and could have been sold by low-level Iranian
McNeill's remarks underlined the US command's knowledge of the link between
the heroin trade and trafficking in arms between southeastern Iran and southern
Afghanistan. The main entry point for opium and heroin smuggling between Afghanistan
and Iran runs through the Iranian province of Sistan-Baluchistan to the capital
of Zahedan. The two convoys of arms which were intercepted by NATO forces last
spring had evidently come through that Iranian province.
According to a report by Robert Tait of the Guardian Feb. 17, Sistan-Baluchistan
province has also been the setting for frequent violent incidents involving
militant Sunni groups and drug traffickers. Tait reported that more than 3,000
Iranian security personnel had been killed in armed clashes with drug traffickers
since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
McNeill further appeared to suggest in the interview with US News that
not all the arms coming from the Iranian side of the border were necessarily
Iranian-made. Munitions in one convoy, he said, "were without a whole lot
of doubt in my mind Iranian made," implying that the origins of the arms
was not clear in other cases.
McNeill's rejection of Burns' accusation reflected the views of Afghanistan's
Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, who told Associated Press on Jun. 14 that
it was "difficult" to link the arms traffic to the Iranian government.
Wardak said the arms "might be from al-Qaeda, from the drug mafia or from
The clash between key civilian officials and the command in Afghanistan over
the explanation for the arms entering Afghanistan from Iran followed a series
of news stories in late May and early June quoting an anonymous administration
official as claiming proof of a change in Iranian policy to one of military
support for the Taliban. These anonymous statements of certainty about such
a policy shift, for which no intelligence has ever been claimed, pointed to
Cheney's office as the orchestrater of the campaign.
Given the very small scale of the arms in question, Cheney's interest in the
issue appears to have much less to do with Afghanistan than his aim of ensuring
that President Bush goes along with the neoconservative desire to attack Iran
before the end of his term.
The US military command in Afghanistan, on the other hand, sees the external
threat in Afghanistan coming from Pakistan rather than from Iran. US commanders
there are very concerned about the increase in Taliban attacks launched from
Pakistan's North Waziristan and South Waziristan following Pakistani Prime Minister
Pervez Musharraf's truce with Islamic separatists in those border provinces
McNeill told a press conference Jun. 5 that there can be no "long-term
stability" in Afghanistan "if there are sanctuaries just out of reach
for both the alliance and the Afghan national security forces that harbor insurgents."
Apparently reflecting Cheney's dominant influence on policy, the Bush administration
has continued to defend the Musharraf government's policy of compromise with
the Pakistani Islamists and has said nothing publicly about the rise in Taliban
attacks launched from Pakistan or the massive arms flow from Pakistan to Taliban
US military officials in Afghanistan could be expected to be skeptical about
an anti-Iran propaganda line aimed at making it more difficult for Bush to resist
neoconservative pressures for a war against Iran. An attack on Iran could only
make the task of coping with the threat from the Taliban more difficult.
Burns, who served in senior positions in the Bill Clinton administration, is
part of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's team, which is resisting Cheney's
pressures for preparations for an attack on Iran. But the Burns statements came
during a visit to France that was aimed at ensuring the French government would
support tougher sanctions against Iran in the United Nations Security Council
if Iran did not suspend enrichment of uranium within a week or two.
So Rice apparently agreed to the new accusation against Iran in order to strengthen
the US argument for tougher sanctions – an administration policy with which
she and Burns have both been identified since late 2005.
Meanwhile, despite the public statement by Burns indicting Iran, both the State
Department and Defense Department appear to have adopted a more ambiguous position
on the issue. In the daily press briefing by State Department on Jun. 13, spokesman
Sean McCormack did not claim that Iran has actually changed its policy toward
the Taliban, much less support the "irrefutable evidence" language
used by Burns.
"At this point we can't make that assessment," McCormack said in
regard to a change in Iranian policy. Asked by reporters to explain the categorical
language used by Burns, McCormack offered the rather awkward explanation that
Burns was merely expressing the "concerns and suspicions" that everyone
in the administration had about Iran's intentions. That remark effectively undercut
the use of the headline-grabbing language by Burns, but was buried in media
coverage of Burns' remarks.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was then on his way to a NATO meeting
on Afghanistan, did not repeat a previous dismissal of the charge of Iran's
arming the Taliban, but also failed to endorse the language used by Burns.
"I would say, given the quantities [of arms] that we're seeing, it is
difficult to believe that it's associated with smuggling or the drug business,
or that it's taking place without the knowledge of the Iranian government,"
However, Gates, who had denied on Jun. 4 that there was any evidence linking
the arms trade to Iran, made the significant admission that he had seen no new
intelligence supporting such speculation.
(Inter Press Service)