Iran fired up its verbal sparring match with the United States over Afghanistan on Wednesday, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Kabul and charged the US with playing a “double game” in the country.
The words echoed those of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who from the same podium at the presidential palace two days earlier accused Iran of “playing a double game” in Afghanistan by declaring support for the government while secretly assisting its Taliban enemies.
Mr. Ahmadinejad arrived just before Mr. Gates left Kabul, a fact that the US defense chief said was “certainly fodder for all the conspiratorialists.”
The Iranian president said the US-led military presence — which is set to surge to 100,000 troops by the end of the year — will not resolve any of the problems in Iran’s eastern neighbor.
“They are not successful in their fight against terrorists because they are playing a double game,” said Ahmadinejad. “They themselves created terrorists, and now they say they are fighting them. It’s not possible; we can see that. Billions of dollars spent [with] casualties on both sides.”
Ahmadinejad said that Iran’s recent bloodless capture of the man at the top of its most wanted list should serve as an example. On Feb. 23, Iran stated that it had forced down the plane carrying Abdolmalek Rigi, the leader of the Jundallah (Soldiers of God), whose Sunni militants were responsible for a host of attacks against Revolutionary Guard and civilian targets in eastern Iran.
“Iran captured one terrorist, and didn’t kill anyone,” the Iranian president said. “It’s possible. The fight against terrorism is not a military one; it requires the work of intelligence.”
Iran: No support for Taliban
Iran denies American claims that it is providing help to the Sunni Taliban, which in past years was a sworn enemy of Shiite-led Tehran. Washington states that its military presence is protecting the Afghan government – not fostering more terrorism, or a Taliban resurgence.
Ahmadinejad highlighted numerous cases of US airstrikes killing civilians, a point raised repeatedly by Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai as a key destabilizing factor recognized by US and NATO commanders.
In the most recent high-profile incident last month, America’s top military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, apologized directly to the Afghan people for the death of 27 civilians when their convoy was attacked by US special forces.
Ahmadinejad pledged “continued” support from Iran. But piqued by its ongoing row with the US, Europe, and the UN Security Council over its nuclear program, Iran declined to take part in a conference on Afghanistan's future in London in January.
Gates's admonition to Afghanistan's neighbors
Before departing the Afghan capital on Wednesday morning, Mr. Gates said he told Mr. Karzai that Kabul should be on good terms with all its neighbors. “But we also want all of Afghanistan’s neighbors to play an up-front game dealing with the government of Afghanistan.”
The Pentagon chief later visited a training ground for Afghan recruits run by US and British military forces. The US plans to begin a withdrawal from Afghanistan in mid-2011.
“Although attention may be focused on operations in the south today, the training at this facility for the long term is even more important,” Gates said. “At the end of the day, only Afghans will be able to provide long-term security for Afghanistan.”
American forces first toppled the Taliban government and their Al Qaeda allies led by Osama bin Laden in October and November 2001, shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon.
The visit of Ahmadinejad comes just days after the Iranian president declared that event a “big lie.”
“Sept. 11 was a big lie, and a pretext for the war on terror and a prelude to invading Afghanistan,” Ahmadinejad was quoted as saying on Iranian state TV last weekend. The attacks were a “complicated intelligence scenario and act.”
In the past, Ahmadinejad has inaccurately claimed that the US never published the names of the 2,750 people believed to have died in those attack. He was denied a request by New York City authorities to visit Ground Zero in 2007, during a meeting of the UN General Assembly. He said then that the attacks were a result of “inhumane managing of the world by the US.”
On Wednesday in Kabul, Ahmadinejad questioned the US role in Afghanistan, without noting that it was the Sept. 11 attacks that prompted the US intervention in 2001.
“My question to Mr. Gates is, what is he doing here in this region?” said Ahmadinejad, according to a live translation on Iran’s English-language channel PressTV. “His country is 12,000 kilometers away.”
He complained that the US and other “enemies of Iran and Afghanistan” sought to block technical progress in Iran, from rocket launches into space to nuclear expertise. “They want to break down our countries,” Ahmadinejad said. “But I am certain that all of them will meet defeat.”
Shortly after the fall of the Taliban, the Iranian government of then-President Mohammad Khatami played a key role in the creation of the postwar government that brought Karzai to power, and even offered to help train the new Afghan military alongside US forces, according to top US negotiators at the time.
The Bush administration rejected that training offer, but then complicated any future Iranian assistance by labeling the Islamic Republic part of an “axis of evil” with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and North Korea in January 2002. For years, officials in Washington made clear that “regime change” in Iran was a policy goal.
Plenty of that bitterness remains, and Iran’s strategic calculations have changed with the presence of so many US-led Western forces in Afghanistan to the east, and today, some 100,000 US troops in Iraq to the west.
“We do not see the presence of foreign military forces in Afghanistan as a solution for peace in Afghanistan,” Ahmadinejed said on Wednesday.