Officials: Soviet-Era Caches, Not Iran, Arming Taliban

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan – While United States officials accuse Iran of arming a resurgent Taliban, officials here say the weapons are actually part of vast caches left behind by the Soviet army that fought a nine-year war in Afghanistan before withdrawing in 1988.

Ustad Basir Arifi, secretary for the Disarmament of Illegal Armed Groups (DIAG) program in northern Afghanistan, told IPS that weapons abandoned by the Soviet Union there are now being moved by professional smugglers to the southern provinces where the Taliban Islamist movement has its stronghold.

"Huge caches of weapons remained with the people from the Soviet Union period. These are now being smuggled to the south of Afghanistan. These weapons are bought in the north of Afghanistan and smuggled to the south to be used against government and foreign forces," Arifi said.

According to Arifi, security officials have on several occasions intercepted weapons being smuggled to the south. He said the DIAG has urged the government to take firm measures to avoid all this.

Abdul Aziz Ahmad Zai, the chief of DIAG, said his group was "very concerned over the issue. It shows that the Taliban are being fortified."

Zai did not rule out the possibility of weapons originating from outside Afghanistan. "Smugglers could be bringing weapons from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to the north. A good transit point could be Badakhshan province," he said without mentioning Iran.

Zai said powerful syndicates were carrying out the smuggling. "However, our security officials and the Interior Ministry are working very actively in this regard," he added.

According to Zai, the recent riots in northern Jowzjan province were an indicator of the fact that weapons were freely available to people. He also said that there still were armed groups in the north of Afghanistan. "It is a very great concern for us that there are lots of illegal armed groups in the north," he said.

Gen. Abdul Manan, representative of the defense ministry in the DIAG program, said the government has been able to collect 70,000 heavy and light weapons from the whole country under the DDR and DIAG programs. But he believes that at least a million more pieces were in the hands of armed groups in the north.

A gun smuggler operating from the Balkh province district told IPS that he has been in the business for the last two years. The Pashto-speaking, bearded man, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said he regularly comes to the north to buy different kinds of weapons. "I have employed people to collect weapons from people who have them and these are ferried to the south."

"I have my customers in Kandahar. When the weapons reach there, they come and receive it. I make a good profit. I can buy an AK-47 for $200 in the north and sell it for $400 in the south," he added. Occasionally he smuggles explosives as well.

Ahmad Shah, 45, a resident of Chemtal district in the Balkh province, freely admitted to supplying the smugglers with guns. "I earn my living through running this business," he told IPS.

Atta Mohammad Nur, the governor of Balkh province, neither accepts nor rejects the fact that the weapons are being smuggled to the south. "It could be right. Insurgents are doing their utmost to disrupt life in the country. They could be smuggling weapons from north to the south," he said.

Rohullah Samun, spokesman for the Jowzjan governor, accepts that vast amount of weapons still exist in the province. "People do have weapons. There are lots of illegal armed militias in Jowzjan and its neighboring provinces. Some of the warlords are regrouping," he said.

The reference was to Abdorrashid Dostum, one of Afghanistan’s most formidable warlords. Dostum, who once supported the Soviets, has had a hand in the many regime changes that this war-torn country has seen over the last three decades and retains enormous influence in Jowzjan.

Dostum was among leaders who helped the U.S.-led forces to overthrow the Taliban government in 2001. Until recently he was regarded as the strongman of the north, but his role has been reduced to that of a military adviser to Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai.

On June 13, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told CNN television in Paris that there was "irrefutable evidence" that Iran was supplying weapons to the Taliban.

Ironically, the Taliban owes its origins largely to mujahedeen that were once armed and backed by the U.S. against communist rule in Afghanistan and the Soviet occupation.