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Iran gains influence in Afghanistan as war continues

August 6, 2017 at 4:35 PM EDT
President Donald Trump has reportedly become frustrated with what he sees as the U.S.’s losing position in the 16-year war in Afghanistan. The New York Times also reported this weekend that Iran has gained influence there, conducting covert activities and supporting the Taliban, which was once its enemy. Carlotta Gall, who is covering the issue for The New York Times, joins Hari Sreenivasan.
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HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND ANCHOR: We’re now in the 16th year of U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan.  The numbers are less than they were, and it is reported that the Trump administration is looking at political and military options there.  The president has also reportedly weighed personnel changes overseeing the American effort, and is frustrated by what he sees as a losing position in the war.

And, as “The New York Times” reported this weekend, Iran has gained influence in Afghanistan, conducting covert activities and supporting their one-time enemy, the Taliban.  According to “The Times” report, quote: As the NATO mission in Afghanistan expanded, the Iranians quietly began supporting the Taliban, to bleed the Americans and their allies by raising the cost of the intervention so that they would leave.

Joining me now via Skype from Istanbul, Turkey, is Carlotta Gall, who wrote the story.

Carlotta, Iranians and the Taliban are on opposite sides of the Sunni/Shia divide.  Why are they working together here?

CARLOTTA GALL, REPORTER, THE NEW YORK TIMES:  That’s what amazes me, and this is where we found last year when the Taliban leader Mullah Mansour was killed, he was actually returning from a very high-level visit in Iran.  And it wasn’t his first.  He’d done at least three trips.

They’re calculating that the American drawdown is going to continue, and that they want to have proxies that they can influence, on, along their — especially along their border.  And so, the Taliban were the ones who were in play.  And so, they reached out to them, and amazingly, they even connected them with Russia and helped get weapons to the Taliban.

So, it’s a turnabout from when the Taliban was really, almost at war with Iran.  Now, they seem to think, you know, a lesser enemy would be each other, and get to work.

SREENIVASAN:  What’s financing all this?

GALL:  The Taliban, as you probably know, have always been financed by Pakistan and the Gulf Arab states really as a Sunni force.  And they are, actually, have been just trying to diversify under Mansour.  He was keen to reach out to Iran for money, but also weapons, training.  And he also gets a lot of money from the drugs, but it seems that also how he had connections with Iran, because a lot of narcotics that are grown in Afghanistan go out through Iran.

SREENIVASAN:  And you’re saying that there’s evidence of Iranian involvement even in some of the Taliban raids that are happening in Afghanistan?

GALL:  We went down to Farah, which is a very remote province on the — western — Afghanistan’s western border, with Iran.  And they had a very big assault last year, last October.  They had big air strikes.  And they have discovered that through Iranian commanders, who’d been killed in that operation.  So, Iranians had been involved on a high level.

SREENIVASAN:  So, is the goal then for Iran to sow instability in the region, or just specifically in Afghanistan, knowing that, even if they don’t particularly control it, this is an opportunity for them to get the Americans out?

GALL:  They really don’t want American troops and influence in Afghanistan.  They see it as their backyard.  But they are also calculating, they want proxy forces that are loyal to them or at least controlled by them, that they have some leverage over.  So, that’s the calculation to help some of the Taliban that are local along their area.

They also really want to hurt America, and that’s their ultimate aim — to bleed them, as we wrote, and to push them out eventually.

SREENIVASAN:  All right.  Carlotta Gall of “The New York Times” joining us via Skype from Istanbul, thanks so much.

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