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Iran IPB: Afghanistan Proxy War Edition

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

We continue the IPB for War with Iran today, laying out Iran’s options to fight a proxy war against the U.S. in Afghanistan. Of the options available to Iran, the threat of guided missiles worries me the most. (To understand my historical disinterest in this topic, read yesterday’s post.)

How Iran Could Support Afghan Insurgents

Iran could supply two types of guided missiles to the Taliban: surface-to-air (think Stingers) or anti-tank (think Javelins).

Fortunately, this hasn’t happened yet. Unlike the U.S.S.R., the U.S. hasn’t faced a rival superpower supplying insurgents with missiles; the U.S. hasn’t even lost an aircraft to a surface-to-air missile in Afghanistan. (In one incident, intelligence indicated an SA-7 may have been fired at a plane.) When missiles do show up from the 1980s or Pakistan or Libya, American intelligence operatives usually intercept them, because the U.S. pays more for guided missiles than anyone else, pricing them out of insurgent hands.

And the U.S. hasn’t seen any anti-tank missiles either. Also, Iran has only provided minimal support to the Taliban’s IED operations, nowhere close to the level of support they provided Shia in Iraq.

Why Iran Doesn’t Support Insurgents in Afghanistan

First, the Iranian regime risks America’s wrath if it supports insurgents too heavily. Second, Iran has a limited store of missiles, relying on Russian imports and its own military production system to create guided missiles. However, its young defense industry can only produce so many. Nevertheless, Iran does have a range of man-portable, aging, Russian-built SAMs it could send to Afghanistan. Supporting proxies with SAMs, though, means depleting its own stock, and having fewer missiles to use against an American invasion.
       
What Iranian Support Could Look Like

At the worst, Iran and the Taliban could launch a coordinated campaign against American aviation assets. To maintain surprise, Iranian agents would try to coordinate their attacks over a handful of days. They could also support a major Taliban offensive, and use SAMs to harass close air support and combat aviation, removing one of America’s biggest advantages from the fight.

If the IRGC Quds Force elements responsible for Afghanistan were smart--I cannot guarantee this--they would target U.S. helicopters. Helicopters--slower, flying at lower altitude, less maneuverable--would be sitting ducks. Without helicopters (or their use severely curtailed), special operations folks would have to limit their missions; U.S. forces would then travel the country by vehicle, dramatically increasing the targets for IEDs (a secondary Quds force target); U.S. forces would also lose close combat aviation and close air support, their single biggest advantage over insurgents.

Iran could complement this anti-air strategy with an influx of anti-tank guided missiles. Several articles in the Jerusalem Post describe Iranian support and training of Gazans in the use of their anti-tank missiles. While Iran hasn’t done this with the Taliban--for reasons I will explain below--Iran could; they make their own anti-tank missiles, which means, unlike surface-to-air missiles, it has plenty to give to insurgents.
   
Current Relationships in Afghanistan

Iran already has operatives on the ground in Afghanistan, but mostly in predominantly Shia areas, the Western part of the country. They also have strong inroads with Hezara groups, another Shia sect persecuted by the Taliban for years. While Iran has some contact with the Taliban, they don’t like working together; Shias and Sunnis go together like oil and water, bloods and crips, Sith Lords and Jedi Knights. So while Iran may have provided some support to the Taliban, the IRGC Quds Force just doesn’t trust the Taliban. Would you?

Despite news stories with anonymous government officials describing the vast influence of Iran in Afghanistan, Iran doesn’t support the Taliban nearly as much as our ally Pakistan’s ISI does.
   
How likely is this scenario?

Obviously, Iran has a history with proxies, particularly Hezbollah, which I will discuss in my posts on terrorism. But not that many in Afghanistan. Also, if Iran diverts resources to a proxy war in Afghanistan, it cannot use those resources to defend itself. And any Iranian mission will have to contend with U.S. forces trying to intercept anti-air and anti-tank weapons. Those three reasons provide good incentive for Iran to continue the course in Afghanistan.

I do think, though, that Iranian agents would try to do something if America invaded. Likely, though, it will be a small increase in supplying IEDs to insurgents or supplying a handful of SAMs or anti-tank missiles to insurgents. Not enough to change the war, but enough to kill some Americans, and raise the cost of war.

I’ll finish the IPB tomorrow.

One comment

Wouldn’t the fact that most insurgent organizations in Afghanistan being Sunni(e.g. Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hekmatyar’s Hizbi-Islam, Lashkar-e-Taiba) also be a further deterrent for Iran, a country headed by a Shi’a Ayatollah, to supply Afghan militias?