- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2006

SHINDAND, Afghanistan

Sitting in a grimy office at the end of a dank hallway, Police Chief Syed Ahmed Ansari tells of finding caches of explosives and of hunting spies in his corner of western Afghanistan, far from the main haunts of Taliban rebels.

He says his biggest worry isn’t the Taliban; it’s Iran.

“Iran is a dangerous neighbor. We know that terrorists are being trained in both Iran and in Pakistan, and we are in the middle,” said Chief Ansari, whose town is in Herat Province, which borders Iran.

The Iranian Foreign Ministry has rejected claims of interference in Afghanistan as baseless.

But all along Afghanistan’s sparsely peopled border with Iran, Afghan officials and Western diplomats say the regime in Tehran is encouraging unrest in its neighbor while striving to increase its own influence.

They say Iranians are using cutthroat business practices to gain an edge in Afghan commerce, recruiting supporters among Afghanistan’s Shi’ite Muslim minority and using popular TV serials to sway public opinion against the West.

The Iranian effort seeks to take advantage of shifts in power relationships after the ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. These wars left large numbers of American troops on both sides of Iran.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai says interference from Iran and other neighbors results in a dangerous game that may bring chaos to the region.

“The consequences will be that this region will suffer with us, equally, as we suffer. In the past, we suffered alone. This time everybody will suffer with us,” Mr. Karzai told the Associated Press in Kabul, the capital.

Weak border security

The 580-mile border with Iran runs along three Afghan provinces. There are no big towns, and Afghan forces conduct few patrols, making it easy for people to sneak into the vast region.

Security is a major concern for Chief Ansari. His town of sun-baked mud houses might have the look of centuries past, but Shindand plays a strategic role for the U.S.-led coalition, having Afghanistan’s only major military air base aside from Bagram, near Kabul.

His force has 65 officers, two cars and no radio communications as it patrols an area the size of Manhattan. Chief Ansari told AP that Afghan authorities have collected disturbing intelligence about Iranian activities in the border regions.

“From Iran, they are bringing explosive material to Afghanistan. They don’t want Afghanistan to be at peace because they are at war with the United States. One hundred percent, Iran is working against Afghanistan’s safety,” he said.

Chief Ansari said the intelligence indicates that Iran is sending in spies and trying to stir opposition to Mr. Karzai’s government.

“We conduct searches for explosive materials and we find stockpiles of weapons in areas around here, yet we don’t have strong Taliban commanders from here, so where is this coming from? We know it is coming from Iran, but it is not an easy thing to stop,” he said.

Some observers say it is not surprising that Iran would try to influence its neighbors. Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow in Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, sees Iran’s regional policy as “mostly defensive.”

U.S. provocation

Iran, a mainly Shi’ite Muslim nation, welcomed the toppling of Afghanistan’s mainly Sunni Taliban regime after the September 11 al Qaeda attacks on the United States. Tehran also was happy at the defeat of Saddam, a longtime foe.

But those wars expanded the U.S. presence in the region.

About 19,000 U.S. troops buttress Mr. Karzai’s government in Afghanistan, while 136,000 are in Iraq, joining the U.S. Navy presence in the Persian Gulf. Washington’s ties with Saudi Arabia are solid and there is now a U.S. alliance with Pakistan’s military rulers.

Iran has built more security posts along the border with Afghanistan, and Afghan officials say it has erected a fence that encroaches about 200 yards inside Afghanistan.

But officials said Iranian activities go far beyond guarding against incursions.

Before leaving Afghanistan last year for a post in Iraq, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad accused Iran of sending the Al Quds Division of its Revolutionary Guards across the border to incite unrest and cause trouble for Western troops.

A senior Afghan defense ministry official in Kabul told AP that intelligence has revealed that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have camps along the border. He also warned of a nexus of interests emerging among Iran, Russia, Taliban remnants and renegade Afghan militia leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Loyalist propaganda

“Russia is not happy with what is going on here, with the U.S. presence here. Russia wants Central Asia to be dependent on them and Iran wants Afghanistan as a buffer,” the official said.

Mohammed Zaman, acting customs manager at Islam Kala, Afghanistan’s busiest border crossing with Iran, said the Tehran regime is infiltrating loyalists recruited among the hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees living in Iran, some since 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

“They have their own friends among the refugees, and some of these refugees are now in the government,” Mr. Zaman told AP in a makeshift office in sight of the border.

Graffiti scribbled on the wall of a housing complex for junior police officers 74 miles away in Herat, the provincial capital, attest to the support Iran has in western Afghanistan. It reads: “Long live Ahmadinejad” — referring to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was elected in June.

Mr. Zaman said both the Iranians and Americans gather intelligence along the border. When the topic turned to U.S. activity, his voice dropped to a whisper. His information was sketchy, he said.

“The American soldiers come once or twice a week. They come and they search. We don’t know what they are looking for. They come in their own cars and do their searches without talking to us,” the customs manager said.

A news report last year said U.S. troops had slipped into Iran from Afghanistan to seek evidence of secret installations used in Tehran’s suspected nuclear activities. Iran’s nuclear program has been put before the U.N. Security Council for consideration of whether Tehran is trying to build atomic weapons.

Commercial influence

Since the ouster of the Taliban, Washington has sought to improve controls along the border by training Afghanistan’s customs police and building a customs complex.

The effort has been unsuccessful because of corruption, said a Western diplomat, who insisted on anonymity. His job in western Afghanistan is to keep an eye on Iranian activity, particularly in business.

“This is less sexy but vitally important because Iran is using predatory trade practices, subsidized input and smuggled goods to undercut Herat businesses,” the envoy said. “What Iran is trying to do is colonize western Afghanistan by making sure they are not strong competitors able to build a strong, independent economy.”

Al Haj Toryalai Ghawsi, an official at the Industrial Union in the provincial capital of Herat, agreed.

“Iran is overrunning our economy in western Afghanistan. Iran is looking at western Afghanistan to have influence throughout our economy. They worry because they look at Afghanistan and see Afghanistan as part of America, and to have control they want to control our economy,” he said.

Abdul Ahad, a 50-year-old shopkeeper in Herat, also sees the Iranian encroachment. “Everything we have is from Iran. Look inside my shop — the biscuits, the tea, the sweets — it is all from Iran,” he said.

He said he worries about Iranian intentions, although he also is suspicious of the United States.

Others are more comfortable with Iran’s influence.

“We are Muslims. I don’t want the American kind of freedom,” said Gul Ahmed, a 50-year-old laborer. “We have our religion and our culture. There is no difference between our culture and Iran’s culture.”

But Naseer Ahmed Raha, who heads a youth group dedicated to developing civil society in Herat, sees Iranian machinations in Afghanistan.

“Iran never said it was against democracy in Afghanistan, but in these days Iran has promoted insecurity, has taken over our businesses, has encouraged mullahs in Afghanistan to talk for the benefit of Iran, mullahs to speak out against the American influence,” he said.

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