The U.S. military commander in Afghanistan says he has evidence that factions of Pakistani and Iranian spy services are supporting insurgent groups that carry out attacks on coalition troops.
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan are being aided by “elements of some intelligence agencies,” Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal wrote in a detailed analysis of the military situation delivered to the White House earlier this month.
McChrystal went on to single out Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency as well as the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as contributing to the external forces working to undermine U.S. interests and destabilize the government in Kabul.
The remarks reflect long-running U.S. concerns about Pakistan and Iran, but it is rare that they have been voiced so prominently by a top U.S. official. McChrystal submitted his assessment last month, and a declassified version was published Sunday on the Washington Post website.
The criticism of Pakistan is a particularly delicate issue because of the United States’ close cooperation with Islamabad in pursuing militants and carrying out drone airstrikes in the nation’s rugged east.
“Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan,” McChrystal wrote, adding that senior leaders of the major Taliban groups are “reportedly aided by some elements of Pakistan’s ISI.” The ISI has long-standing ties to the Taliban, but Pakistani officials have repeatedly claimed to have severed those relationships in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
More recently, the ISI has been a key U.S. partner in the capture of a number of high-level Al Qaeda operatives, including alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. But U.S. officials have also complained of ongoing contacts between the spy service and Taliban groups.
U.S. frustration peaked last year when Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other U.S. officials secretly confronted Pakistan with evidence of ISI involvement in the suicide bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul.
Since then, U.S. officials have sought to avoid public criticism of the Pakistani service as part of an effort to defuse tensions in the relationship. Indeed, U.S. officials in recent months have said that the ISI had become more committed to the counter-terrorism cause after one of the service’s own facilities in Lahore was the target of a suicide bombing.
McChrystal’s comments are the first public indication in months that the United States continues to see signs of ISI support for insurgent groups. Experts said elements of the ISI maintain those ties to hedge against a U.S. withdrawal from the region and rising Indian influence in Afghanistan.
“There is a mixture of motives and concerns within the ISI that have accounted for the dalliances that have gone on for years” with insurgent groups, said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA counter-terrorism official.
Iran has traditionally had an adversarial relationship with the Taliban, and McChrystal’s report says that Tehran has played “an ambiguous role in Afghanistan,” providing developmental assistance to the government even as it flirts with insurgent groups that target U.S. troops.
“The Iranian Quds Force is reportedly training fighters for certain Taliban groups and providing other forms of military assistance to insurgents,” McChrystal said in the report. The Quds Force is an elite wing of the Revolutionary Guard that carries out operations in other countries.
McChrystal did not elaborate on the nature of the assistance, but Iran has been a transit point for foreign fighters entering Pakistan. Experts also cited evidence that Iran has provided training and technology in the use of roadside bombs.
U.S. intelligence officials said Iran appears to calibrate its involvement to tie down U.S. and coalition troops without provoking direct retaliation.
Iran’s aim “is to make sure the U.S. is tied down and preoccupied in yet another theater,” said Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. “From Iran’s point of view, it’s an historical area of interest and too good an opportunity to pass up.”