KABUL, Afghanistan – Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday that Iranian weapons are falling into the hands of anti-government Taliban fighters but he stopped short of blaming Tehran. Afghan President Hamid Karzai seemed to dismiss the matter.
At a news conference at the presidential palace, Gates offered possible explanations for the flow of weapons from Iran to this war-scarred country, including smuggling. He mentioned no specific weapons, but NATO officials recently cited the discovery in Kabul of an armor-piercing roadside bomb, the same type U.S. officials have long complained are entering Iraq from Iran.
"There have been indications over the past few months of weapons coming in from Iran," Gates told reporters with Karzai at his side. "We do not have any information about whether the government of Iran is supporting this, is behind it, or whether it's smuggling."
Gates, on his second visit to Afghanistan since becoming Pentagon chief last December, said that while the weapons appear to be going to Taliban fighters, some may be headed to criminals in the Afghan drug trade. Asked his own view, Karzai appeared eager to give the Iranian government a pass.
He said there was no evidence of Iranian government involvement, adding, "Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today."
There is no reason for Iran to aid the Taliban, Karzai said. "It is in the interests of our brothers in Iran" to support the development of a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan. He said that also applied to Pakistan, on Afghanistan's eastern border, where U.S. officials say Taliban fighters have found haven and easy passage for cross-border attacks on U.S., NATO and Afghan troops.
A prevalent view among U.S. officials is that Tehran, while not an ally of the Taliban, is seizing any feasible opportunity in both Iraq and Afghanistan to complicate U.S. stabilization efforts and to tie down the American military amid tensions between Tehran and Washington over Iran's nuclear program.
Later, Gates flew to Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, at the heart of the fight against the Taliban, where he conferred privately with U.S. and NATO commanders. Afterward he flew to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan to meet with government officials on Tuesday.
Before the Kabul news conference, Gates flew by helicopter to Camp Morehead, a sparse military outpost ringed by mountain peaks several miles outside Kabul. American and French special forces there are training Afghan commandos in stealthy operations U.S. officials believe are crucial to undermining the Taliban. The first class of recruits is four weeks into its 12-week course.
At Morehead, Gates met Gen. Bismullah Khan, one of the most well-known of the former mujahadeen fighters from the days of Soviet occupation. The general, now head of the Afghan National Army, gave Gates a large book that he said featured descriptions of battlefield exploits by Ahmed Shah Massoud, who played a leading role in driving the Soviet occupation army out of Afghanistan. Massoud, later an Afghan minister of defense, was assassinated by al-Qaida agents two days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In an interview with reporters traveling with Gates, Khan said he is pushing the U.S. to accelerate the training and equipping of the Afghan National Army to hasten the day when it can fight the Taliban without relying on U.S. air and ground support.
"The problem we have is that we are not able to conduct operations independently," Khan said through an interpreter. He cited specifically a lack of Afghan air support and the kind of "direct fire" support provided by tanks. "We are looking forward to the day when we can fight the enemy independently."
The general was asked how soon he thought his forces could function without U.S. military support.
"We ask for it to be as soon as possible," he replied. "I will ask the secretary of defense to expedite the (training and equipping) process so we can do this. The only way to defeat the enemy is to become independent."
The U.S. is committed to training and equipping an Afghan army of 70,000 soldiers, hoping to reach that figure by December 2008.
"It's not going to be enough," Khan said. "We will ask for more."