Tuesday, June 5, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — Sophisticated new weapons, including Chinese anti-aircraft missiles as well as items made in Iran, are reaching Taliban forces in Afghanistan, according to government officials and other sources.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during a visit to Kabul yesterday that there was no evidence as yet that Tehran government officials are involved in shipping weapons to the country for use against U.S. and NATO forces.

He did not comment on the appearance in the country of Chinese anti-aircraft weapons, evidence of which was provided to The Washington Times yesterday.

A set of photographs was provided depicting Taliban insurgents showing off new supplies of Chinese-made HN-5 shoulder-fired missiles.

The weapons, similar in design to Russian Strela-2 missiles and in use with China’s People’s Liberation Army since the early 1990s, are limited in range, speed and altitude, but effective against helicopters and low-flying airplanes.

It is not clear who provided the missiles, since they have been in use for years as far away as Bolivia. Small numbers of them have been in Afghanistan at least since 2002 when U.S. forces discovered a hidden cache.

A Taliban “weapons expert” who provided photos of the latest missiles said the Taliban fighters were “elated” to have more of them, which they consider an important answer to U.S. air power.

He did not say how the weapons got to Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan, where a U.S. helicopter went down last week, killing seven soldiers.

The Taliban claimed to have shot down the Chinook, while NATO authorities have said only that they are investigating. An unidentified U.S. military official was quoted saying the chopper was brought down by a lucky shot from a rocket-propelled grenade.

Mr. Gates, appearing at a press conference in Kabul with President Hamid Karzai, said the Taliban had received shipments of Iranian weapons but that he had no evidence of government complicity.

“There have been indications over the past few months of weapons coming in from Iran,” he said. “We do not have any information about whether the government of Iran is supporting this, is behind it, or whether it’s smuggling, or exactly what’s behind it.”

He added that some of the weapons may have been supplied to criminals involved in Afghanistan’s booming drug trade.

Mr. Karzai was doubtful about official Tehran involvement, saying, “Iran and Afghanistan have never been as friendly as they are today.”

Mr. Gates did not identify the types of Iranian weapons found in Afghanistan, but NATO authorities recently announced the discovery of an armor-piercing roadside bomb in the capital.

The United States has long complained about the same kind of Iranian weapons being used against U.S. troops in Iraq.

Mr. Gates’ visit took place as Afghan civilians and Westerners working outside the military and NATO say expectations about what the U.S. and NATO can achieve here have plummeted.

“One of the problems is that the U.S. and its allies raised expectations so high when they came here,” said Rory Stewart, an author on Afghanistan and a former British diplomat in Iraq.

“By talking so much about democracy and propping up warlords without delivering serious progress, we have managed to discredit a lot of our basic notions in the eyes of the Afghans.”

Corruption in Mr. Karzai’s government is corroding faith in the alliance as well as in Afghan security forces, Afghans say. Many question how Western governments and their Afghan partners have managed to spend billions of dollars on development assistance with only limited results.

Saad Mohseni, the Afghan-Australian director of Moby Capital Partners, a leading private media group, said there is “a lot of confusion about what NATO is doing and will do in the future.”

“I mean, NATO is not a cohesive force. Some NATO troops refuse to fight at night; some NATO troops refuse to fight at all, and these caveats make it very difficult for NATO to have a consistent policy right across the country.”

A senior NATO source rejected that criticism, saying NATO forces apply appropriate force when and where necessary.

“The robustness of NATO’s fighting in the south of the country, where the British, Canadians and Americans are fighting, would be totally inappropriate in the north,” he said.

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