A secret new US Special Forces mission to hunt down Al Qaeda along Afghanistan's border with Iran is triggering cross-border accusations of espionage, amid persistent suspicions that Iran is harboring terrorists.
The Green Berets have based themselves in a desert compound three miles from the Iranian frontier.
Surrounded by a maze of barricades to thwart suicide bombing attacks, the new base is being seen as an affront by Iranian religious hard-liners, who oppose the US-led "war on terror."
Interviews in Zaranj with Afghans expelled and sometimes beaten by Iranian authorities suggest that Tehran is treating the new US presence as a threat to its national integrity. The Iranian military is blaming the threat on local Afghans, whom they accuse of spying for the Americans.
While the US soldiers have been probing border areas where Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan meet, it is unclear if the teams will cross over into Iran, Western military analysts say. They add that US special operations commanders in their home bases are still formulating rules and guidelines for new "snatch squads" to nab Al Qaeda suspects at large across the globe.
Meanwhile, Iranian border troops, their ranks bolstered since the arrival of the three dozen American soldiers, have been digging fresh trenches in the sands here and setting up new gun positions.
The tensions at the border form the latest chapter in two decades of bad relations between the US and Iran. Western analysts in Iran warn that Bush's categorization of Iraq as part of an "axis of evil" has strengthened the hand of hard-line Islamic forces which have supported terror in the past.
Over the past year, senior US officials, led by Secretary. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have repeatedly cast suspicion on Iran as harboring fugitive Al Qaeda members, but have given few details of the basis for their suspicions.
But top Afghan officials in Nimruz and Kabul say they have mounting evidence that elements in Iran's armed forces, as well as the religious police, loyal to the country's conservative clerics, are actively assisting Al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden's second-in-command, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri. The Afghan officials, and Western diplomats in Kabul, contend that this collaboration is the real reason for the new US military base.
"This is an area where Al Qaeda has managed to maintain a foothold under the cover of smugglers," says Aman Khan, Afghanistan's acting military intelligence chief in Kabul. The new focus in the US war on terror "appears to be the west, rather than the east and Pakistan, where it has been going on now for most of a year," he says.
The remote Nimruz province of Afghanistan has long been the redoubt of well-armed heroin smugglers, who race through the parched flatlands in convoys of jacked-up jeeps, past camel carcasses and ancient adobe ruins, on the way to Iran, where they hand over the drugs to Iranian smugglers bound for Turkey. But the American soldiers here, straddling the beds of their pickups in civilian clothes and holding heavy machine guns, are not after the smugglers, who worked with the Taliban until last year and now patronize the new regime. Their prey are the terrorists reportedly plotting nearby.
Nimruz security chief Mohammed Naim Khan says he has passed along intelligence to the US forces that several key Al Qaeda figures, including Dr. Zawahiri, are attempting to buy new arms from local dealers, in addition to planning unspecified terrorist operations from just inside Iran.
But an Iranian diplomat in Kabul rejects the suspicions against his country: "Iran has never had any relations with Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Indeed, we were the ones to inform the international community about the danger of these men several years ago, but no one listened to us at the time." Iranian authorities have detained some Al Qaeda members and sent them back to their homes in the Middle East, in particular, to Saudi Arabia.
But Iran has voiced concern that the "war on terror" could unjustly end up at its doorstep. On Saturday, Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in a written message to an Iranian students' forum in London, said a US attack on Iraq would be only the first step in a plan to bring the entire Middle East under US control.
Afghan officials in Zaranj, who have welcomed the new US forces, say they arrest and expel one or two Iranian spies a day. Meanwhile, Afghan men recently thrown out of Iran some of them with a job and family left behind say Iranian troops have systematically rounded up Afghans, and accused them of spying for the US. "The Iranian soldiers beat us one by one," says Lawang, who was forced out of Iran three days ago. "They scoffed at me and said I should go back to my own country and meet my new boss, the Americans," he says.
Officials in Zaranj say that the Special Operations soldiers held an initial meeting with local Baluchi and Pashtun tribal officials and military commanders three weeks ago and that the commander of the unit, who gave his name only as "Commander Tony," told the Afghans, "We are here to fight and hunt the enemies of the world and Afghanistan."
The US soldiers here are not permitted to speak with journalists. US Central Command in Tampa, Fla., declined to confirm the nature of the special forces mission in Nimruz.
Nimruz security chief Khan says a key Al Qaeda military and religious figure named Abu Hafs, known as "the Mauritanian," is working in Iran alongside Zawahiri. Mr. Khan says he bases his conclusions on reports from the Afghans expelled from the nearby Iranian cities of Zahedan and by Iran's 110th Brigade, a force loyal to the country's highly conservative religious clergy. The security chief says, however, that Hafs and Zawahiri have few armed men they can call their own and even fewer sympathizers in Zaranj.
"The Mauritanian" was first reported to be in Iran by the Washington Post on Aug. 28. The story cited unnamed Arab intelligence sources. Previously, US Central Command had alleged that he had been killed in Afghanistan last January. The Arab sources told the Post that they believed Hafs was living in a guesthouse in Zabol or in Mashhad, further to the north.
Zawahiri has previously been reported as being in Pakistan, on the basis of alleged eyewitness sightings by Pakistani and Afghan locals late last year and early this year. His actual whereabouts, however, have remained as much of a mystery as bin Laden's.
One of the recently expelled Afghans told the Monitor that the former Taliban governor of Nimruz, Mullah Rasool, has been constantly accompanied by a group of Arabs in and around the Iranian city of Zahedan, less than 100 miles from the Afghan border. "We are not so sure about their activities, but they are under tight Iranian government control," he says as he sits against the cracked wall of a boarding house in Zaranj.
One official in Zaranj described a US military operation in which some 10 US soldiers were accompanied by 40 Afghans in a raid on the border town of Rebate Jali, which is about 120 miles south and which straddles Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
"Along with the governor, we took the US commanders there because we had reports of the Taliban and Al Qaeda regrouping, but when we arrived they had already fled," the official says, describing a sequence familiar across much of Afghanistan in the past year.
In Kabul, senior Afghan security officials say that new raids by US forces on smuggling dens and remote villages around Nimruz are based on both US and Afghan intelligence reports that have placed senior Al Qaeda operatives along Afghanistan's western border.
Western diplomats in Kabul told the Monitor that the atmosphere of "intrigue and subterfuge" along Afghanistan's western border is conducive to the terrorists' planning and movement. "We have believed that Al Qaeda was basing out of Iran for some time, and these new US military operations are aimed at cutting off their movements," says one Western diplomat.