In the last eight months, at least 5,000 Afghan citizens and terrorists (al Qaeda, Taliban and Hezb-e-Islam) have died in hostile action. This figure breaks down to 625 deaths a month and more than 20 a day. While the numbers are well below the toll in Iraq, they still attest to the intense fighting unfolding in the last year in Afghanistan.
Last week, a NATO spokesman said the ISAF was investigating the source of a weapons shipment intercepted in the Farah province near the Iranian border. “Although we know that it came from the geographic area of Iran,” said Maj. Charles Anthony. “There is no definitive indication that it came from the Iranian government. “We’re still evaluating what is contained in that shipment.”
According to reports in Washington, the shipment seized Sept. 6 was destined for the Taliban. It included armor-piercing bombs similar to those used to blow up foreign troops in Iraq. It was the third such shipment intercepted; the first two entered from Iran in April and May.
Yet there is plenty of double talk on the subject.
Last month, President George W. Bush said he thinks Iran is playing a destabilizing role in Afghanistan, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai begged to differ. He said Iran was playing a helpful role.
He spoke after Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Kabul and called Afghanistan a “brotherly nation” whose stability is of paramount importance for the region. Typically, Ahmadinejad shrugged off suggestions that his country is supplying the Taliban with weapons.
This double talk reflects the two schools of thought in the American high command:
One maintains that Iran is indeed arming the forces fighting the Americans in Afghanistan; Two asserts that “there is no definitive indication” of this.
At the same time, no American or Afghan official is prepared to throw the notion out of court.
Theory: Bin Laden is hiding in northeastern Afghanistan – not Pakistan
This shilly-shallying and prevarication provide Iran with the perfect soil for its inch-by-inch advance in Afghanistan.
In a recent analysis of how Osama bin Laden escaped capture for six years, Michael Scheuer, who headed the bin Laden Unit at the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center from 1996 to 1999, offered a new theory. He postulates that bin Laden was not found in the Pakistani tribal lands of Waziristan where the hunt has been concentrated because he was not there. He places the al Qaeda leader rather in northeastern Afghanistan between Konar, Nuristan and Bajaur.
Scheuer explains: “Konar and Nuristan were strong mujahedeen redoubts during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. The first resistance to the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul originated in Nuristan in 1978 and the region itself hosted forces belonging to several prominent mujahedeen commanders.
“The most important of these from bin Laden’s current perspective is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e-Islami organization.”
“A longtime friend of bin Laden – he helped facilitate the al Qaeda chief’s return to Afghanistan in May 1996 – Hekmatyar maintains strong forces in parts of Konar province and most of adjacent Laghman province to the east.”
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Afghanistan report the theory of bin Laden living under the protection of this brutal Afghan warlord, twice prime minister and accused of murdering 25,000 in his 1994 bombardment of Kabul, derives from the deep conviction of many US military and CIA chiefs in Afghanistan that he has staged a comeback.
They believe two sources back him with a regular arms supply: Iran directly and Pakistani anti-American elements via the al Qaeda-linked Lashkar-i-Taiba terrorist group of Kashmir.
Hekmatyar’s strong comeback, they say, is the key to the additional punch in the fighting ability of the Taliban and al Qaeda this past year. Without him, they would almost certainly have been beaten back under the hammering of NATO forces. As an extra dimension, the Hezb-e-Islami chief may also be harboring bin Laden in a protected hideout.
A brutal, wild card which falls in and out with Tehran
Therefore, American field commanders in Afghanistan are urgently seeking the lowdown on the Afghan Pashtun warlord’s relations with Tehran, which like his other sponsors has dumped him more than once.
The information would also benefit the other ISAF field commanders, the British, Germans, Canadian, Dutch and Italian, except that their hands are tied by their governments preferring to know as little as possible about the scale of Iranian meddling in Afghanistan.
In any case, getting this information is almost as hard as finding Osama bin Laden, or establishing the precise affinity between Iranian intelligence chiefs and the al Qaeda operatives they harbor in Iran.
Hekmatyar served as prime minister of Afghanistan in 1993 and again in 1996 after helping drive the Soviets out of his country on the US payroll. He has been a formidable presence in Afghan politics since the nineteen eighties. Over the years, he has proved too wild a card for all his sponsors in turn, the US, Iran and Pakistan Up until the American invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, he spent years in Tehran as Iran’s closest partner in Afghanistan. The fact that he is a Sunni Muslim fundamentalist did not then bother him or his Shiite hosts.
Soon after the US invasion, the Pashtun warlord suddenly bolted Tehran and went to ground in the northern Iranian town of Mashhad. His followers said an argument had sprung up between him and the Iranian rulers over which school of Islam should dominate the Afghan regime after the American withdrawal.
Both parties overcome their religious differences when it suits them. Just as Shiite Iran has no moral or ethical compunctions about supplying the Sunni Baathist and fundamentalist al Qaeda with arms and explosives to attack Americans in Iraq, the ayatollahs have come round to rendering the same kind of assistance to the Afghan Sunni fundamentalist Hekmatyar.
A radical theocracy in Kabul – shared Hezb-e-islami- al Qaeda-Taliban-Tehran goal
Iran’s helping hand has restored his fortunes as a key figure in Afghan affairs.
Earlier this month, the Pashtun president of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, had to ask for his cooperation in his plan to offer the Taliban insurgents talks on a political accommodation to end the bloodshed in the country.
Karzai invited Hekmatyar and his Hezb-e-Islami to take part in these negotiations. But the crafty warlord, an old hand at such maneuvers, did not answer directly; instead, he announced his terms for a ceasefire in a video response to questions from the Canadian Globe and Mail.
“Afghan people must sit together and reach the decision that the foreign troops should leave,” he said. “The Americans must accept this, and they must leave. We will never participate in meetings at which this is not discussed.”
Furthermore, he insisted: “Power should be handed over to a temporary government and they will call a meeting of tribal elders, draw up a new constitution and conform to Islamic rules. We should have genuine and fair elections under Islamic rules. Under these circumstances, I agree to join negotiations.”
The canny fundamentalist did not choose this platform at random. Just as al Qaeda uses the media for attempts to demoralize Western troops serving in Iraq, Hekmatyar used the Globe and Mail to undermine the Canadian troops serving in southern Afghanistan and influence public opinion back home to campaign for their withdrawal.
His pre-conditions to Karzai for negotiating a ceasefire were tougher than those set by Iraqi Sunni insurgents for the United States.
In Iraq, the Americans are required to declare in principle their intention of quitting Iraq at an unspecified future date. The Pashtun warlord topped that by demanding that the entire process leading to the formation of an independent Afghan government take place in a fundamentalist Islamic framework – and only after US and Western forces exit the country.
Gulbuddin Hekmyatar’s bid to rid the country of Western forces and establish a radical Islamic theocracy in Kabul is certainly endorsed by Taliban and al Qaeda and espoused by Tehran. It is therefore worth careful note and he is a man to watch.