KABUL, Afghanistan – Iran gives political and material support to President Hamid Karzai’s Western-backed government, but it also may be aiding the Taliban as a way of hedging its bets in neighboring Afghanistan, NATO’s top general here said Monday.
In an interview with The Associated Press, U.S. Army Gen. Dan McNeill said Taliban fighters are showing signs of better training, using combat techniques comparable to “an advanced Western military” in ambushes of U.S. Special Forces soldiers.
Iran’s possible role in aiding insurgents in Iraq has long been hotly debated, and last month some Western and Persian Gulf governments charged that the Islamic government in Tehran is secretly bolstering Taliban fighters.
“In Afghanistan it is clear that the Taliban is receiving support, including arms from … elements of the Iranian regime,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in the May 31 edition of the Economist.
Iran, which is also in a dispute with the West over its nuclear program, denies the Taliban accusation, calling it part of a broad anti-Iranian campaign. Tehran says it makes no sense that a Shiite-led government like itself would help the fundamentalist Sunni movement of the Taliban.
McNeill, the commander of 36,000 soldiers in NATO’s International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said indications on the ground cut both ways.
There is “ample evidence” Iran is helping Karzai’s administration, particularly with road construction and electricity in western Afghanistan, he told the AP.
But he added that he wouldn’t doubt Iran may also help the Taliban and other political opponents of Karzai.
“So what does that add up to? It makes me think of a major American corporation that will give political campaign money to three or four different candidates for president of the United States,” he said. “Somebody is going to come out on top. This corporation wants to be aligned with whoever comes out on top.”
McNeill, a 60-year-old, four-star general from North Carolina who has fought in most American conflicts since Vietnam, said he had no hard evidence the Iranian government has helped the Taliban. He said munitions, particularly mortar rounds found on Afghan battlefields, “clearly were made in Iran,” but said that does not prove the Iranian government is formally involved.
“If I had the information, I would have no reservation about saying it,” he said.
In a separate interview Monday, the Iranian ambassador to Afghanistan rejected the accusation that his government aids the Taliban.
“This is not correct,” Mohammad R. Bahrami told the AP at his embassy. “The return of extremism in Afghanistan will affect not only Afghanistan and the region, but the entire world.”
Bahrami claimed the U.S. and Britain are making the accusation as an excuse to “justify their failures” in Afghanistan, such as the increasing opium poppy production and the resurgence of the Taliban.
Insurgents have stepped up the pace of suicide and roadside bombings from last year, which saw the most violence since the Taliban was toppled in late 2001. More than 2,200 people, many of them insurgents, have died in fighting this year, according to an AP count based on U.S., NATO and Afghan reports.
McNeill said NATO forces under his command pursued a successful offensive this spring against insurgents, but he acknowledged Taliban militants are showing signs of improved training.
For instance, they have advanced on U.S. Special Forces in recent months after staging ambushes in tight terrain between high ground and a river, a complex military maneuver that McNeill termed “surprising.”
“We have now seen them shoot and maneuver a couple times in ways we haven’t seen before. Where that’s coming from I’m not exactly certain,” he said. “But they have used some versions of fire and maneuver that makes one think of an advanced Western military.”
There also has been speculation Taliban fighters are adopting tactics used by insurgents in Iraq, and McNeill said he wouldn’t rule out that they are coordinating their efforts. But he stressed he didn’t have any information to state conclusively that is happening.
NATO forces gained a major victory in Afghanistan last month with the killing of Mullah Dadullah, who was deemed the top Taliban commander.
McNeill said Dadullah had attained “iconic” status among some Afghans, but his reputation had begun to wane after the distribution of videos showing his participation in beheadings of enemies and his encouraging a 12-year-old boy inside Pakistan to behead an alleged spy.
While withholding details about how Dadullah was tracked down, McNeill said it was the “ego” of the Taliban commander that led to his death.
“It was my view that any of these Taliban leaders, especially Dadullah, if they ever left their sanctuaries, especially if they came into Afghanistan, that their egos would be their undoing. In Dadullah’s case that was a large part of it,” McNeill said, alluding to the belief that Dadullah and other insurgents have operated from bases in Pakistan’s tribal region.
McNeill said NATO forces have slightly reduced the number of insurgents flowing into Afghanistan from Pakistan, but he gave no details.
“We have stemmed it a tad. Have we stemmed it greatly? I’m not in a position to say that’s the case,” he said. “Do I continue to be worried about what’s coming over the border? The answer is yes.”
McNeill painted an optimistic picture of the development of the Afghan National Army, now approaching the fifth anniversary since its first battalions were trained.
The Afghan army has made “tremendous strides” and is taking the lead in a new operation in Ghazni province, he said. Recruitment is up from 600 soldiers a month last year to more than 2,000 a month this year, McNeill said.
“When I see how they are moving and shooting on the battlefield today, I realize how far they have come and how more advanced they are,” he said.
“That does not mean game over, time for us to go home. But I think that quite possibly the fighting season next year, maybe some fighting units will be operating independently.”