While some officials in a restive southern Afghan province say Iran has equipped the Taliban with anti-aircraft missiles, there is still no definitive proof that Tehran is behind the numerous recent downing of U.S. and Afghan airplanes.
Sardar Muhammad Haya, the caretaker police chief of Uruzgan Province, says recent intelligence indicates that Tehran is equipping the Taliban with anti-aircraft missiles, which is aimed at pushing U.S. forces out of Afghanistan.
“Iran has given the Taliban anti-aircraft missiles so that they can better target our aircrafts,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Numerous [recent] intelligence reports based on various sources detail this support.”
The Taliban have rejected the claim. Iran has always denied supporting the Afghan insurgents militarily despite maintaining an acknowledged diplomatic link. Even Afghan Defense Ministry officials in Kabul are skeptical and appear reluctant to back the claim.
Haya, however, says their intelligence shows that the latest batch of Iranian missiles was given to the Taliban in the southwestern province of Farah, which borders South Khorasan Province in eastern Iran. He says they are working on preventing these missiles being used in Uruzgan, where the Taliban control large swathes of territories and frequently clash with government forces. In the past, senior Afghan officials have accused Iran of supporting the insurgents in the province.
Lawmaker Amir Khan Barakzai, head of Uruzgan’s provincial council, says Iran’s alleged support for the Taliban equals an effort to foment a new phase of the four-decade-long Afghan war in the wake of an imminent peace agreement. The Taliban and United States are likely to sign a peace agreement after a weeklong reduction in attacks. The agreement will pave the way for the withdrawal of American troops and negotiations toward a lasting political settlement among Afghans.
“Through various bilateral and multilateral agreements, the international community had promised us to stop the interference of our neighbors in our internal affairs, which had gone on in the past,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “We now want them to honor their promises.”
Fawad Aman, deputy spokesman for the Defense Ministry, told Radio Free Afghanistan that none of their aircraft has been hit by insurgent fire since the beginning of this year.
“Two of our aircraft crashed in Farah and the [northern province] of Balkh because of technical problems,” he said. “Three more aircraft however, only made emergency landings.”
The Taliban, however, have taken credit for shooting down these aircraft. Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, a purported Taliban spokesman, rejected claims they are targeting the aircraft with weapons newly acquired from Iran. In a message to Radio Free Afghanistan, he said they were using sophisticated weapons captured from the Afghan forces.
In addition to targeting Afghan military aircraft, the Taliban also took credit for targeting a U.S. military plane late last month.
Fringe Iranian media outlets celebrated the January 27 crash of a U.S. Air Force communications jet in the central Afghan province of Ghazni. Some termed it retaliation for the killing of Qasem Soleimani. Washington claimed to have targeted the leader of the shadowy Quds Force, arguably the most influential Iranian military commander, outside Baghdad’s airport on January 3.
Washington, however, said that plane crashed due to technical faults. "I'm pretty confident there was no enemy action involved. Aircraft mishaps happen," General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told journalists on January 29.
A Pentagon report to Congress in December painted a cautious picture of Iran’s support for the Taliban. “Iran pursues its interests in Afghanistan by providing calibrated support to the Taliban while attempting to grow ties to the Afghan government,” the report said. “Iranian interests include the removal of United States and coalition presence; the elimination of ISIS-Khorasan; and increasing economic and security ties, water rights, and border security.”
Days after Soleimani’s killing, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of actively working to undermine the Afghan peace process by continuing to support Afghan militant groups. “The Taliban’s entanglement in Iran’s dirty work will only harm the Afghanistan peace process,” he noted.
Despite repeated attempts, Radio Free Afghanistan correspondents were not able to solicit comments from the Iranian Embassy in Kabul. In the past, Iranian officials have rejected accusations they are supporting Afghan insurgents.
But some Afghans are not convinced. Hekmatullah Azamy, a Kabul-based security analyst, says tensions between Washington and Tehran will prompt the latter to think of better arming the Afghan insurgents. “For instance, will Tehran arm the Taliban with missiles to better target the Afghan Air Force and U.S. warplanes?” he asked.
Barnett Rubin, a former UN and U.S. government adviser, sees Iran as a vital potential spoiler capable of derailing an imminent peace agreement between the Taliban and the United States. “It must also avoid confrontation with Iran, possibly the single biggest threat to this process,” he recently wrote.
A brewing political crisis over the presidential election in September, however, poses a more immediate threat. On February 18, the Afghan election commission finally declared incumbent Ashraf Ghani the winner. But his election rival, Chief Executive Abduallah Abdullah, also declared victory.
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Sharifullah Sharafat contributed reporting from Tarin Kot in Uruzgan. Mustafa Sarwar and Homayoon Shinwari contributed reporting from Prague.