In support of the official U.S. assertion that Iran is arming its sworn enemy, the Taliban, the head of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), Dennis Blair, has cited a statement by a Taliban commander last year attributing military success against NATO forces to Iranian military assistance.
But the Taliban commander’s claim is contradicted by evidence from the U.S. Defense Department, Canadian forces in Afghanistan and the Taliban itself that the increased damage to NATO tanks by Taliban forces has come from anti-tank mines provided by the United States to the jihadi movement in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The Taliban claim was cited by ODNI in written responses to questions for the record from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence following testimony by Blair before the Committee Feb. 12, 2009. The responses were released to the Federation of American Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act Jul. 30.
ODNI wrote that Iran was “covertly supplying arms to Afghan insurgents while publicly posing as supportive of the Afghan government”. As evidence of such covert Iranian arms supply, the ODNI said, “Taliban commanders have publicly credited Iranian support for their successful operations against Coalition forces”.
That statement was taken almost word for word from the subtitle of an article in The Daily Telegraph Sep. 4. “A Taliban commander has credited Iranian-supplied weapons with successful operations against coalition forces in Afghanistan,” read the subtitle.
The single Taliban commander quoted became plural in the ODNI version.
In the article, British journalist Kate Clark quoted an unnamed Taliban commander as saying, “There’s a kind of landmine called a Dragon. Iran’s sending it. It’s directional and it causes heavy casualties.”
The commander said the new mine would “destroy” large tanks “completely”, whereas “ordinary” anti-tank mines had only caused “minor damage”.
If true, the revelation that an improved Iranian anti-tank weapon had been killing U.S. and NATO troops in larger numbers would have been a major development in the war in Afghanistan. Roadside bomb attacks are acknowledged by U.S. and NATO officials to be the cause of most of the casualties and deaths of foreign troops in the country.
The rapid rise in casualties over the past two years is attributed in part to the increased lethality of the Taliban mines.
But according to the Pentagon agency responsible for combating roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan, the increased Taliban threat to U.S. and NATO vehicles comes not from any new technology from Iran but from Italian-made mines left over from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s military assistance to the anti-Soviet jihadists in the 1980s.
In response to my inquiry, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) said in an e-mail that Italian-manufactured TC-6 anti-tank mines are “very common” in the Taliban-dominated areas of the country and that they have been modified to increase their lethality in IED attacks.
The JIEDDO response said TC-6 mines are being “arrayed in two or three in tandem to ensure the charge is large enough to inflict damage against Coalition vehicles.” The TC-6 mines “continue to pose a significant threat to Coalition Forces”, JIEDDO said.
The combining of two or three anti-tank mines into a single, more destructive bomb would account for the increased lethality of the anti-tank mines being used by the Taliban.
The claim by the alleged Taliban commander of new, more effective weaponry supplied by Iran appears to have been deliberate misinformation for the Western press.
British writer Jason Elliot, who has traveled extensively in Afghanistan since 1979, reported in a 2001 book Min(d)ing Afghanistan that the Italian-made TC-6 was the most commonly used anti-tank mine used in Afghanistan. The 15-pound charge of TNT, wrote Elliot in the TC-6, he wrote, could “flip a tank the way a seagull flips a baby turtle.”
Millions of mines remained buried in the ground from the Soviet occupation period, Elliot observed. However, only some 20,000 anti-tank mines have been destroyed since 1989, according to the United Nations.
Further evidence that the Taliban are relying heavily on the TC-6 to damage NATO tanks is a picture published by al-Jazeera on May 1, 2007 in a Taliban storeroom of explosives in Helmand province. The photograph, taken by a cameraman accompanying correspondent James Bays, showed two insurgent bomb-makers working on what was clearly identifiable as an Italian TC-6 anti-tank mine.
The insurgents told the photographer that the explosives in the room were in the process of being converted into “anti-tank bombs”.
Canadian forces in Kandahar province have encountered some of the heaviest Taliban use of anti-tank mines in Afghanistan. According to casualty data on the website of the Canadian Forces, since the beginning of 2007, 57 of 81 deaths of Canadian troops in Afghanistan have come from roadside bombs and anti-tank mines.
Capt. Dean Menard, a spokesman for Canadian forces in Kandahar, told me in a telephone interview that some of the ordnance used by the Taliban against Canadian tanks “are definitely attributable to the Soviet occupation era” – a reference to mines supplied by the United States through Pakistan during the anti-Soviet war.
The insurgents have obtained anti-tank weapons from “legacy minefields” dating from the period of Soviet occupation, according to Menard. Canadian forces also have intelligence that the Taliban obtain such mines from a “vast black market”, he said.
The Canadian spokesman confirmed that the Taliban are “making bigger mines” from the ordnance obtained from those sources.
In 2007 and 2008, Afghan military and police discovered two major caches of weapons in Herat province on the Iranian border that included anti-tank mines which some Afghan officials suggesting had originated in Iran.
But one picture of mines discovered in Herat, published by the Revolutionary Women’s Association of Afghanistan, clearly shows nine Italian TC-6 mines and one which resembles the top from a U.S. M-19 landmine, which was among those found in Afghanistan over the past two decades.
One mine cannot be clearly identified from the picture, but it does not resemble any known Iranian mine.
A picture of the 2007 cache in Herat published by AFP shows more Italian C-6 mines, along with a number of what appear to be U.S. M-19 anti-tank mines. The picture shows an Afghan policeman pointing to a mark on one of the latter, suggesting that it is of Iranian origin.
A copy of the U.S. M-19 mine has been manufactured by Iran, according to Jane’s Mines and Mine Clearance 2005-2006. However, long-buried Iranian-made M19s provided to the Jamiat-I Islami Mujahedin faction fighting more extremist Hezb-e Islami fighters in the 1992-96 period exploded accidentally in Kabul as recently as 2006.
Moreover, a 2009 study of arms deliveries to Afghanistan in the 1990s by the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies shows that Iran’s large-scale arms aid to the Northern Alliance forces in 1999 included anti-tank mines.
The prominence of the Italian-made mines among weapons found in Herat indicate that the anti-tank mines discovered in Herat in 2007 and 2008 were not assistance from Iran to the Taliban but weapons provided either to the Mujahedin during the Soviet occupation or to the Northern Alliance troops fighting the Taliban in the late 1990s.
Former CIA officer Phil Giraldi, who monitors U.S. intelligence analysis on Iran, told me he doubts the ODNI statement on Iranian policy in Afghanistan accurately reflects the analysis.
“If you were to read the original analytical report,” said Giraldi, “you would probably find that it’s caveated like mad.”
GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006.