The U.S. Army officer responsible for the Pentagon's effort to combat roadside bombs says there has been a slight increase in Iranian involvement with Afghan insurgents, but the level is still very low. The officer says efforts to counter the deadly bombs are increasing as more U.S. and allied troops flow into Afghanistan, and he believes there will be a considerable positive impact in the coming months.
Lieutenant General Michael Oates says while there has been what he calls "a slight uptick" (increase) in Iranian support for Afghan insurgents, it has paled in comparison to Iranian involvement with Iraq's insurgency.
"Weapons systems generally associated with Iran and some of the more complicated detonation systems have not really materialized in Afghanistan," said General Oates. "So my initial assessment would be that their lethal support has not been anywhere near what we saw in Iraq."
General Oates says information about Iranian involvement comes largely from Afghan and foreign detainees captured by the coalition. But he cautions against assuming Iran's Quds Force is playing a significant role in Afghanistan, as it has in Iraq.
"If you have enough money, you can pretty much acquire about any type of explosive or military grade capability that you need in the world," he said. "And this is what concerns me about the Taliban. They're resourced through the poppy trade, and with those resources can acquire lethal components and munitions from all over the world."
Roadside bombs, what the military calls Improvised Explosive Devices or IEDs, have been the largest killer of U.S. troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of American deaths from the devices in Afghanistan doubled last year, as the monthly average number of bombs that exploded or were found increased from about 500 per month to about 800 per month. General Oates says in the 90 days since he took command of the anti-IED effort, about 50 Americans have been killed and 400 wounded by roadside bombs.
the general says he does not expect that intensity to continue throughout this year, but he is quick to add that the progress will not come quickly or without more casualties.
"If things remain consistent, we're going to see more casualties in the short term," said Oates. "But in the long term, as we just saw in Iraq, we're going to improve the Afghan security force, we're going to secure the population using them, largely, and the IED will become less effective as a weapons system because the Taliban will become less effective as an enemy. That is the thesis. We have proven it once. And I am very optimistic that we'll prove it in Afghanistan."
General Oates says his agency is increasing anti-roadside bomb capabilities in Afghanistan as the United States and its allies send in nearly 40,000 more troops. He says some of the effort involves high technology, but he says a big part of the effort is better training for the troops on how to recognize and avoid the bombs. His organization is also working to disrupt insurgent funding, and networks of groups involved in making and planting the bombs.
The general would not speculate about why Iran has apparently not been as active with Afghanistan's insurgency as it has been in Iraq. But Larry Goodson, a professor Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College, told VOA recently Iranian policy toward Afghanistan is a mix of regional strategy and bi-lateral practicality.
"Iran, as an ally, if you will, of India in this game, is a potential player," said Larry Goodson. "And if you want a much less cynical view, Iran is a neighbor. It has a lot of potentially shared interests, at least, in terms of commerce and counter-narcotics and so-forth with Afghanistan."
Indeed, General Oates at the Pentagon says he believes Iran is working more through trade and cultural exchanges to try to influence Afghanistan's future, than it is through support for the insurgents.