“There is a willingness to provide some degree of assistance to make the life of those who are trying to help the Afghan people difficult,” Petraeus told a conference today in the Qatari capital, Doha.
Petraeus gave no details of the Iranian assistance, which he described as taking place at “a small level.” The U.S. and its allies are watching Iran’s actions in Afghanistan “very, very closely,” he said, adding that the Persian Gulf state continues to train and equip Shiite Muslim militias in neighboring Iraq.
The Obama administration is preparing to commit as many as 30,000 more troops over the next year to beat back a renewed Taliban insurgency. Petraeus’s comments come as the U.S. is seeking to start a dialogue with Iran amid a continued standoff over its nuclear program.
Shiite Muslim Iran cooperated with the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan that toppled the militant Sunni Muslim Taliban, noted Petraeus.
“It’s not in their interests to see the Taliban, a Sunni ultra-conservative, extremist element, return to take control of Afghanistan,” he told the conference on the U.S. role in the Islamic World.
Support to Iraq
Petraeus, who commanded the U.S. military in Iraq before taking over as head of forces in Central Asia and the Middle East, said that Iranian military ties to “special groups” in Iraq was “one of the elements fueling” violence between Sunnis and Shias that brought Iraq to the verge of civil war in 2006 and 2007.
“There is absolutely no question about this, and there is also no question that some of this does continue to this day,” Petraeus said.
The additional forces in Afghanistan would be part of a shift of emphasis under President Barack Obama to make that country the main focus of U.S. efforts to combat terrorism as violence declines in Iraq. Insurgent attacks in Afghanistan last year rose to the highest level since the 2001 invasion.
After Qatar, Petraeus is due to travel onto Uzbekistan. The Central Asian nation borders Afghanistan and housed a U.S. air base until 2005, when its government ordered the American military to leave.
The U.S.-NATO effort in Afghanistan suffered a potential setback earlier this month when another Central Asian country, Kyrgyzstan, announced plans to end American access to an air base in the country.
The base at the Manas airport near the capital of Bishkek is a prime transit point for personnel and cargo moving in and out of Afghanistan. There are about 37,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan as well as 32,000 troops from other North Atlantic Treaty Organization members.
The U.S. is considering alternative supply routes into Afghanistan even as it seeks to retain access to Manas.
Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev announced plans to close the U.S. base while visiting Moscow on Feb. 3. During the visit, Bakiyev received a Russian pledge for more than $2 billion in economic assistance.
Russia is pushing the new Obama administration to reconsider U.S. plans to station missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic. It also opposes NATO expansion to include its former Soviet neighbors, Ukraine and Georgia.