U.S. eyes Iran in Afghanistan

By CONSTANT BRAND, Associated Press
The U.S. will keep a close eye on Iran’s involvement in Afghanistan following reports that Taliban insurgents used Iranian-made weapons against NATO forces, a senior U.S. official said Wednesday.

Richard Boucher, Assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, told reporters that Washington would like Iran to continue its previous “generally positive role” in reconstruction efforts in its eastern neighbor.

“Over, say, the last year or so there have been increasing concerns raised over Iran’s behavior in Afghanistan,” Boucher said. “Involvement that goes beyond the sort of cultural, commercial and educational, and starts going into reports of involvement in political areas or reports of contacts and arms supply to the Taliban,” he said. “These are things we are watching very carefully.”

U.S. military officials raised worries of a wider Iranian role in Afghanistan on Tuesday when Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in Washington that U.S. forces recently intercepted Iranian-made weapons intended for Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials caution however that any Iranian link, notably in providing weapons to Taliban fighters, remains cloudy. In Iraq, the United States have claimed they are certain arms are being supplied to insurgents by Iran’s secretive Quds Force.

Pace said mortars, and plastic explosives which he said were made in Iran, were intercepted in the southern Kandahar province within the past month.

U.S. counterterrorism officials have said a handful of senior al-Qaida operatives who fled to Iran after the war in Afghanistan in 2001 may have developed a working relationship with a secretive military unit linked to Iran’s religious hard-liners. Iran has rejected the charges.

Boucher, who was in Brussels to hold talks with European Union officials on Afghanistan and the wider central Asian region, reiterated appeals that NATO’s European allies contribute troops to bolster NATO forces in the south and east of Afghanistan, which is facing the heaviest Taliban resistance.

Spain, Italy, Germany and France, members of both the EU and NATO, have refused to send more troops or to move existing forces in Afghanistan to help NATO’s spring offensive against the Taliban.

He said the aim of this year’s reconstruction efforts was to ensure the spread of government authority from Kabul to outlying regions, through road building, setting up schools, police stations and use of electricity.

“It’s all about rebuilding the ability of the government to operate the ability of afghans to deliver security, governance and economic opportunity to its people,” Boucher said.

The United States has around 27,000 troops in Afghanistan at present, and has offered $11.6 billion in new aid for the country.

The 27-nation EU in February proposed a $813 million package for Afghanistan, to focus on health, justice and rural development over the next four years, and EU nations agreed to set up a police training mission that could be deployed as early as May.

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