Two weeks ago Afghan officials intercepted a shipment of Iranian weapons en route to the Taliban in the Afghan province of Nimroz.
“The police chief of Nimroz announced that they had intercepted a couple tons of Iranian explosives marked as food and toys,” said Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, who just returned from a two week visit to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Until recently U.S. military commanders would quietly slip journalists information about the unhelpful role that Iran and its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were playing in Afghanistan. A role that often provides some of the same support and weaponry to the Taliban that it did to militant groups that were fighting U.S. troops in Iraq.
Commanders provide journalists with examples of Iran spreading its economic influence in the Western part of Afghanistan and trying to buy candidates and their loyalty in Afghanistan's recent Parliamentary elections.
But on Monday Iranian diplomats were seated at a NATO conference in Rome at the invitation of the Obama administration to discuss the way forward in Afghanistan. It was the ninth meeting of the NATO contact group which included foreign ministers and high level dignitaries, including U.S. Special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke.
“We recognize that Iran….has a role to play in the peaceful settlement of the situation in Afghanistan,” Holbrooke said.
He added, “for the United States today, there is no problem with their presence [at the meeting]."
NATO's top commander General David Petraeus briefed the group which included this high ranking Iranian diplomat about "transition," another word for handing over control to Afghanistan's security forces.
"That's not admitting defeat,” Holbrooke said. “That's, as we've all said, we are not going to win this war by purely military means. General Petraeus said it again this morning in our briefings. The war will not end on a battleship in Tokyo Bay or at Dayton, Ohio. It will end through a different kind of process.”
That process is raising concerns among some Afghans, Pakistani officials, and U.S. military experts.
“Perhaps General Petraeus and the Obama Administration and NATO want to make it appear as if the Iranians are cooperating, but it's all smoke in mirrors,” AEI’s Rubin said. “All the Afghans I talked to said that Iranians were up to no good and unfortunately sitting down with the Iranians and including them in our talks about the future structure in Afghan security forces is going to be perceived by Afghans as the United States is surrendering, of the United States leaving and allowing the Iranians to fill the vacuum.”
President Obama's announcement that the first U.S. troops would be leaving in July 2011 changed the equation in Afghanistan. Afghan officials want assurances that the U.S. and NATO aren't leaving.
"It is critical that the international community speaks with one voice in reiterating to the respected constituency the message that has been repeated over and over again in this meeting that transition will not mean withdraw or exit," said Afghan foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul.
The Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini tried to ease Rassoul’s concern.
"We shouldn't talk about exit strategy,” Frattini said.