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Afghanistan: Locals Challenge Iranian Interference In Country's Western Provinces

By William Samii/Zarif Nazar

Initially, Tehran played a positive role in stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan, first by aiding the Northern Alliance and then by ironing out differences between the different groups involved in negotiating the Bonn accords. But now it appears to be following a different agenda, by allegedly providing refuge to Al-Qaeda and Taliban personnel and also by arming various factions in Afghanistan itself -- actions that threaten to undermine stability in the country. In one case, local officials were able to overcome their differences, but it is not clear how easily this will be accomplished in the future as Tehran continues its efforts to exert influence in Afghanistan.

Prague, 5 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Tehran's most recent actions have elicited expressions of concern from Washington. On 3 February, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, speaking on a U.S. news program (ABC television's "This Week"), said, "We have any number of reports that Iran has been permissive and allowed transit through their country of Al-Qaeda [members]."

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Assefi, rejected Rumsfeld's statement the next day. Assefi said Iran has "full control" over its 936-kilometer border with Afghanistan, and that it would not be in Tehran's interests to allow Al-Qaeda personnel to enter the country. The official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) cites Assefi as saying, "The recent U.S. accusations against Iran are inspired and dictated by the Zionist regime."

Yet it is clear that Tehran does not have full control over its borders. IRNA carries frequent reports from throughout Iran about the seizure of narcotics that originated in Afghanistan. Moreover, personnel in the provinces are poorly paid and susceptible to bribes.

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld also expressed concern about numerous recent reports that Tehran has been arming various elements in Afghanistan. Over the last month, particular concern has been expressed about Tehran's special relationship with Ismail Khan, the governor of Herat Province, which abuts the Iranian border. Not only are his armed followers allegedly equipped, clothed, and paid by Tehran, but there are also other armed groups operating in the province with Iranian support. One, a 300-member group known as the Army of Mohammad, occupies three different bases around Herat, and receives training from Iranian advisers. And in an interview on 18 January, U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad suggested that elements of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' al-Qods Brigade have joined Afghan fighters in Herat.

Gul Agha Shirzai, the governor of Kandahar Province, discussed the extent of Iranian assistance to Ismail Khan in an interview with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service.

"Some weeks ago, there were about 2,000 pieces of weapons and 130 cars [trucks] of foodstuffs sent [by Iran]. We also confiscated 250 Kalashnikovs in Khakrez [County], which were from Iran. Foreigners and the UN saw the situation [with the weapons]. Then I told Iran itself in my interview not to interfere [in Afghan affairs]; I said that we do not need guns now but other things. When you provide assistance you should contact the center [central Afghan government] and give assistance through the center -- not give money and aid and weapons separately to every commander. It is illegal and un-Islamic, and the world does not accept it either."

A spokesman for Shirzai, Mohammad Yusef Pashtun, said earlier that senior Iranian military officers were operating in Farah, Nimruz, and Helmand provinces. He alleged that they were trying to lure local warlords away from cooperating with the administration in Kabul.

Tehran's purported reason for arming Ismail Khan and other warlords in western Afghanistan goes beyond the desire to have a friendly neighbor who can ensure border security, although Iranian officials have praised Ismail Khan for that very reason. It seems more likely that Tehran is trying to create a sphere of influence in western Afghanistan, and an area in which Tehran's remit exceeds that of Kabul. There is more to this than the provision of arms and money. Herat's markets are full of Iranian goods, from soft drinks to crockery and teapots. The hotels are full of Iranian businessmen hoping to make deals. Locals complain that the best deals require Iranian approval.

There were reports in late January that an armed force from Kandahar would attack Herat because of Iranian interference there. Gul Agha Shirzai discussed these reports with RFE/RL's Turkmen Service, but he said that the issue had been resolved peacefully.

"Others gave interviews saying that [I] had gathered 20,000 mujahedins to attack Herat. It was not so. Before I went to London, I sent a delegation to [Ismail Khan] to discuss the issues [connected to the] problems of Iranian interference -- [Iran] sends money and weapons and [its representatives] have come to Helmand. Some business people together with their cars and wares were seized. Some of the businessmen were my landsmen [from Kandahar] -- I sent a delegation. This problem has been solved. This morning (3 February), they told me by telephone that the problem has been resolved and the equipment and people will be released and [Ismail Khan] has said that [he] will not do this in future."

Already there has been fighting between warlords in Gardez and in Mazar-i-Sharif. Regardless of the reasoning behind Iranian actions in western Afghanistan, they are threatening to undermine the modicum of stability in the country even further. But the ability of Kandahar Governor Gul Agha Shirzai to defuse the crisis in his region suggests that it might be best to let the Afghans handle issues on their own as much as possible.

(The interview with Gul Agha Shirzai was conducted by Turkmen Service Director Zarif Nazar.)