Iran Poises Its Forces On Afghan Border
Analysts Warn Of 'Incursion' Targeting Taliban
By Dana Priest
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 5, 1998; Page A01
U.S. intelligence analysts have warned the Pentagon and the White House that Iran is poised to send thousands of troops and dozens of attack aircraft into Afghanistan and that an incursion is "imminent," according to senior defense and administration officials.
In the last week, under the guise of a military exercise called "Ashura 3," Iran has sent about 35,000 troops as well as 25 attack aircraft, 80 T-72 tanks, two SA-6 mobile missile batteries, 90 heavy artillery pieces and 60 armored vehicles to its northeastern border with Afghanistan, U.S. officials said.
The troop movement coincides with escalating tensions between the two countries, fueled by reports this week that Taliban guards killed 10 diplomats in the Iranian consulate in Mazar-e Sharif, a city in northern Afghanistan where international human rights groups say the Taliban has viciously repressed the Shiite Muslim minority.
Any fighting that breaks out between Iran and Afghanistan could be long and bloody because neither side possesses a definitive military advantage, U.S. officials said. A war would also destabilize a region where the United States has considerable stated interests but very limited influence.
Two weeks ago the U.S. military launched a cruise missile attack on terrorist bases in southeastern Afghanistan in an effort to damage the movement led by Osama bin Laden, the Saudi-born terrorist leader and financier who has close relations with the Taliban. Bin Laden has been implicated by U.S. officials in the Aug. 7 bombing of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Iran's grievances with the Taliban are different from those of the United States. U.S. analysts believe Iran wants to deny the Taliban recognition as a legitimate government of Afghanistan and is intent on breaking its hold over some territory it now controls. The Taliban seized Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, in 1996, and now controls about two-thirds of the country.
Iran, a Shiite-dominated country, has been the principal logistics backer of the chief anti-Taliban coalition, known as the Northern Alliance. In their attempt to impose their military and religious control over the north, the Taliban took over Mazar-e Sharif last month and has since reportedly massacred thousands of civilians, most of them Shiites, according to Amnesty International.
"They are close to panic-stricken," the senior official said of the Iranians. "They are probably trying to intimidate the Taliban and there certainly is a possibility they will cross the border."
Iran has also opposed the Taliban because of its insistence on an extreme form of the religion, which includes a ban on education for girls and jobs for women. U.S. officials say Iran also worries that the Sunni Muslim-led Taliban could incite the Sunni minority in Iran.
Officials said yesterday there are indications that Iran may be working in coordination with Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to prevent the Taliban from consolidating its control of Faryab and Baghbis provinces in northwestern Afghanistan.
Iran's military buildup is centered around the northeastern town of Ahmadabad near Tayyebat. Besides the military equipment and personnel from the Islamic Revolution's Guard Corps, the Iranians have constructed a 100-bed field hospital, which includes an intensive care unit, a surgery unit and a blood bank facility, all of which led intelligence analysts to conclude that the exercise likely is a "smoke screen," as one defense official said, for the coming incursion.
This week, Iran Major Gen. Yahya Rahim Safavi, commander of the guard corps, said that "Tehran will not tolerate mischievous acts and disturbances at its borders by any country," according to Islamic Republic News Agency, the official voice of the government. He said the troops and equipment participating in the exercises "will not leave the region."
Intelligence analysts believe the likely target would be the town of Herat, located 140 kilometers from the Iranian border, which the Taliban captured in 1995. Among the troops involved in the exercises, said the defense official, are as many as 2,000 Afghani fighters loyal to Gen. Ismael Khan, the former governor of Herat who was ousted by the Taliban.
The Iranians also have brought 25 attack jets to an airbase in nearby Mashhad "and are making further preparations for an attack," the senior defense official said.
U.S. defense intelligence believes Iran's intentions could be to launch airstrikes and limited ground incursions. U.S. officials said the United States would support neither side and they criticized both sides for aggression against the other.
"A war between Iran and Afghanistan would probably be prolonged, bloody and costly," said the senior administration official. "We don't have a favorite horse in this fight."
Officials said yesterday that a war could siphon the support of both countries for international terrorist activities. But, a senior administration official warned, "it also means their willingness and attention to closely monitoring terrorist groups will be decreased."
The United States supported the Afghan rebels during the 1980s as they resisted an invasion by the Soviet Union. But during the same decade Washington chose to stay removed from the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted eight years until 1988 and killed an estimated 1 million people.
Staff researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.
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