Top commander sees increased Iran threat in Afghanistan

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, center, top U.S. commander for the Middle East, makes an unannounced visit, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photos/Lolita Baldor)
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, center, top U.S. commander for the Middle East, makes an unannounced visit, Friday, Jan. 31, 2020 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photos/Lolita Baldor)

KABUL – There has been an increase in Iranian activity in Afghanistan that poses a risk to American and coalition troops there, a senior U..S. commander said, as the threat from Tehran continues to churn across the Middle East.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan this week. He told reporters traveling with him that he is seeing a “worrisome trend,” of Iranian malign interference.

“Iran has always sort of dabbled a little bit in Afghanistan, but they see perhaps an opportunity to get after us and the coalition here through their proxies,” McKenzie said. “So, we are very concerned about that here as we go forward.”

McKenzie's warnings come just weeks after Iran launched as many as two dozen ballistic missiles at two bases in Iraq where American forces are stationed. No one was killed, but several dozen U.S. troops received traumatic brain injuries. The attack was in retribution for a U.S. drone strike in Iraq that killed Qassem Soleimani, a top Iranian Quds Force general.

Iran has long provided money, support and weapons to Shiite militias in Afghanistan. As the war in Syria heated up in recent years, Iran ran an extensive drive to bring in Shiites from Afghanistan and other parts of the region to help support President Bashar Assad. And as that war has wound down, thousands have returned home. Afghan officials have expressed concerns that Iran is still backing and organizing the militia members and that they could pose a threat to troops, residents and the government.

McKenzie, who left Afghanistan Friday after a three-day visit, said the coalition is working with the Afghan government to monitor the situation and prevent any problems.

Meanwhile, the coalition’s combat campaign against the Taliban also rages on, even as the U.S. works to hammer out a peace agreement with the insurgent group. The U.S. and the Taliban are negotiating a reduction in hostilities or a cease-fire to allow the signing of a peace agreement that would open the way to a broader post-war deal for Afghans and allow for the withdrawal of most, if not all, U.S. and coalition forces.

But as Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's envoy for talks with the insurgents, works to broker a deal in Qatar, the Taliban has continued near daily attacks, and the coalition and its Afghan partners continue to strike insurgents. Last year the U.S. launched more munitions in Afghanistan than in previous years, as troops battled the Taliban and a stubborn Islamic State affiliate. Both sides see the violence as a way to push the other into a better deal.