By an IWPR trainee-reporter in Herat, Afghanistan
The recent discovery of Iranian-made explosives close to a major dam project in western Afghanistan has fueled local suspicions that Tehran is trying to destabilise the country.
Iranian-made ordnance has been flowing across Afghanistan’s western border with increased regularity, according to high-ranking officials in the region. While drug dealers and war profiteers are responsible for much of the guns and explosives entering the country, there is a growing concern that some Tehran officials are complicit in the trade.
A high-ranking Afghan border police official, who requested anonymity, told IWPR, “There are many Iranian military officers who are in constant contact with the [insurgents] and with drug smugglers in Afghanistan. They exchange weapons for drugs. We have seized many Iranian weapons in the border regions.”
Last month, Afghan security forces found a cache of Iranian-made explosives and ammunition around the Bakhshabad Dam, in the Bala Baluk district of Farah province. The 2.2 million US dollar construction project will substantially bolster the water and power supply to communities in the region – but will also reduce the flow of water into neighbouring Iran.
Abdul Samad Stanekzai, the former governor of Farah, told IWPR that he had been contacted on numerous occasions by Iranian officials, who had asked that he halt the project.
Mohammad Yunus Rassouli, deputy governor of Farah province, said, “Our reports indicate that the Iranian government is trying to prevent the construction of the Bakhshabad Dam. They will do whatever is necessary.“Right now Indian and Afghan engineers are working on the dam. They have been attacked by unidentified gunmen twice since work began.”
Charges of Iranian interference in Afghanistan are nothing new. Two years ago, Iranian-made weapons were seized by the border police in Herat province, setting off a wave of speculation about Iran’s motives.Iran, a majority Shia country, was no friend to the overwhelmingly Sunni Taleban when the latter ruled Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. But since Iran’s relations with the United States hit a new low during the Bush administration, some commentators have suggested that Tehran has been willing to work with the Afghan insurgents on an “enemy of my enemy is my friend” basis.
In addition, there have been many issues that have complicated relations between the two countries over the past few years, including the forced repatriation of Afghan refugees from Iran, and alleged meddling by Iran in Afghanistan’s fledgling saffron industry. But Iran steadfastly denies any involvement in the weapons trade in Afghanistan, and dismisses any suggestion that it wants to see its eastern neighbour sink deeper into conflict.“The Iranian government has donated 506 million US dollars to Afghanistan for reconstruction and development,” said an official at the Iranian consulate in Herat, on conditions of anonymity. “We want development and prosperity for Afghanistan.” The official also claimed that Iran supported the Bakhshabad Dam project.
The discovery of explosives close to the dam comes amid an increase in the volume of weapons trafficked into the country from Iran, with the Taleban admitting that they are the recipients of much of it.
A local Taleban commander in Farah, Mullah Khodaidad, told IWPR that the insurgents were trading drugs for guns in Afghanistan’s western regions.“Local Taleban get firearms and ammunition by giving poppy all along the Iranian border,” he said. “”We do not care where the weapons are made; the important thing is to kill foreigners.”
Poppy, and the heroin that is made from it, is by far Afghanistan’s largest cash crop, with the Taleban estimated to make profits of between 100-300 million dollars from the trade, a substantial proportion of which is spent on the purchase of weapons. According to Khodaidad, guns smuggled into the country across the Iranian border are distributed to Taleban fighters in Badghis, Ghor, and Helmand, western Afghan provinces.
Those weapons end up being used against the government of Afghanistan and the foreign forces, say Afghan officials.Badghis province governor Mohammad Ashraf Naseri says he is battling a growing insurgency. Several districts are witnessing a sharp rise in violence, in large part to imported weapons, he told IWPR.“Last year on Qaos 6 (November 27) the Taleban ambushed and killed 20 police in Akazi area of Bala Murghab district,” he said. “When the government investigated, they found a number of Iranian-made weapons.”
Mohammad Ayub Niyazyar, former police chief in Badghis, confirmed that the Taleban were using Iranian weapons and ammunition.A border police official in Badghis, who did not want to be named, said that the police had recently discovered and defused an Iranian-made IED (improvised explosive device) in the Kalata Nazar area of the province.
For many Afghan officials, the plethora of Iranian-made weapons translates to an active desire on the part of the government of Iran to see Afghanistan destabilized.“Neighbouring countries are doing their utmost to prevent development in Afghanistan,” Naseri said.“Our neighbours want Afghanistan to live in war forever,” Farah province’s Rassouli said.
But the Afghan government has been intent on not turning the weapons trade into a bone of contention with Iran. President Hamed Karzai has on several occasions reiterated his friendship with Tehran, and some officials who’ve spoken out about the trafficking have ended up losing their jobs.
General Rahmatullah Safai, a former border police commander-in-chief in western Afghanistan, had long expressed concern over the issue. In 2007, he revealed that several powerful anti-tank mines clearly marked as having come from Iran had been found in western Herat. Safai was sacked several months ago.
Zmarai Bashiri, a spokesman for the ministry of interior, insisted that neither Safai nor any other official in the western provinces had been dismissed for revealing the presence of Iranian-made weapons.Referring to the mines Safai had identified in 2007, Bashiri said it was not clear whether they belonged to a previous era. “We are still investigating,” he said.