WASHINGTON - Afghan officials say they are investigating a visit in 2018 of the new commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, Esmail Qaani, to the province of Bamiyan where he claimed to be the Iranian Deputy Chief of Mission in Kabul.
Qaani, a 61-year-old brigadier general, became the chief of the Quds Force, the foreign wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), following the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani Friday in an airstrike.
Shortly after his appointment, Afghan media circulated pictures showing him paying an official visit to Bamiyan province in July 2018, allegedly as Iran’s deputy ambassador.
The governor of Bamiyan, Mohammad Tahir Zuhair, who appeared in one of the photos giving Qaani a local tapestry, told VOA that Qaani introduced himself as an Iranian diplomat visiting the province to reiterate Iran’s support for the local government.
“Let me emphasize again that no foreign delegation ever comes to this province without Kabul coordinating the visit. This protocol was applied to this particular visit as well. We were told by Kabul that an Iranian delegation would oversee the process of building a hospital in Bamiyan,” Zuhair told VOA.
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The governor said officials in Kabul instructed the local government to provide Qaani and his team with security and logistics assistance.
“The Iranian delegation spent about 45 minutes in the hospital and then came to my office and we met. The head of delegation introduced himself as Ismaeli, Iranian deputy chief of mission in Kabul. He said that they came to Bamiyan to tell the people that Iran liked to help them,” he told VOA.
At the time of his visit to Bamiyan, Qaani was serving as the deputy commander of the Quds Force under Soleimani.
Why the visit?
Afghan officials say that Qaani never served in a diplomatic capacity in Afghanistan, raising questions about the intentions of his visit to the predominately Shiite province in central Afghanistan.
“We are investigating the exact nature and date of his visit. At this point I can assure you that he was never the deputy ambassador in Afghanistan,” Idrees Zaman, Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister, said in a press conference Tuesday.
Some Afghanistan analysts like Jonathan Schroden, the director of Center for Stability and Development at Washington-based research and analysis organization CNA, are charging that Iran might have arranged for the alleged disguise to prevent the Afghan government’s monitoring.
“It is hard to say whether he was actually traveling under a false title in this case; it’s possible that Iran could have named him as a DCM, if even temporarily, in whatever travel documents he had, etc., in order to provide him official cover for his travel,” Schroden said.
He however expressed some skepticism over the alleged disguise, saying it is unlikely that Iran’s commander could hide behind a bogus identity given his high-profile status for years in Iran and the wider region.
Other experts say Qaani’s visit could be seen as an effort to mobilize Shiite people to support the Quds Force, given Iran’s previous efforts to gain influence among Shiites in Afghanistan.
Regional experts say it was Qaani’s duty to actively recruit for the Quds Force among Shia populations in Afghanistan.
Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told VOA that one of Iran’s main targets has been to establish a foothold in the Shiite areas in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
He added that it is generally believed that “his [Soleimani] deputy, Gen. Esmail Qaani was in charge of QF operations in Central Asia while [Soleimani] himself was busy fighting the Americans, Israel and IS in Iraq, Lebanon and Levant.”
According to Michael Kugelman, the deputy director of the Asia Program at the Wilson Center, Iran since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011 has recruited thousands of Afghans into what is known as the Fatemiyoun battalion. The battalion, consisting of Shiites who traveled from Afghanistan and Afghan refugees in Iran, have been used in Syria both in the battlefields and to protect Shiite holy sites.
“To be sure, one of the concerns given the current state of play is that Iran, keen to stage reprisals against the United States, taps into the community of Afghan Shia fighters that previously served in Syria and calls on them to target U.S. forces in Afghanistan,” Kugelman said.
VOA’s Afghan Service contributed to this report.