Afghan arms shipment came from Iran-NATO general

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KABUL, Oct 18 (Reuters) A shipment of hi-tech roadside bombs intercepted in Afghanistan originated in Iran, the commander of NATO-led troops said today, adding it was hard to believe Tehran's military did not know about the arms.

General Dan McNeill said the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) had scored tactical successes against Taliban rebels in the last year, but more needed to be done to bring security, development and good governance to Afghanistan.

Weapons from neighbouring countries only exacerbated the problems of achieving those goals, the U.S. general added.

ISAF, McNeill said, ''intercepted a weapons convoy on September 5 in the western part of this country. This weapons convoy clearly geographically originated from Iran. This convoy contained a number of advanced technology improvised explosive devices.

''It is difficult for me to conceive that this convoy could have originated in Iran and come to Afghanistan without at least the knowledge of the Iranian military,'' McNeill told a news conference.

US leaders have accused Iran of supplying weapons to Taliban insurgents, but Afghan President Hamid Karzai has refrained from repeating the charge and insists Iran and Afghanistan enjoy warm neighbourly relations.

Tehran strongly denies the charge.

But while there is little love lost between Shi'ite Iran and the hardline Sunni Taliban, Tehran has an interest in undermining US and Western forces inside its eastern neighbour, security analysts say.

''BUYING TIME'' McNeill said his forces had made tangible progress against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, where the rebels are strongest.

''This time several weeks ago last year there was much fear and anxiety about the imminent collapse of Kandahar province,'' he said. ''That's not the case this year. Kandahar is a lot more secure a province than it was last year.'' In response though, the Taliban have increased the number of suicide and roadside bomb attacks across the country.

McNeill said military efforts were hampered by a lack of good governance.

Frustration with the slow pace of development and widespread corruption are credited with boosting Taliban support and spreading their influence northwards and closer to the capital -- areas considered safe a little more than a year ago.

''We have worked very hard in the dimension of enabling governance and we probably have not had as much success in helping the Afghan people as any of us would have liked,'' said McNeill.

He added that the success of counter-insurgency efforts depended on the strengthening the Afghan army and police.

''We are simply buying space and time for the development of the Afghan security forces,'' he said.

Poppy cultivation also aided Taliban rebels, McNeill said, estimating profits from Afghanistan's record-breaking opium crop provided between 20 to 40 per cent of insurgent funds.

Western diplomats and military leaders concede there is no purely military solution to defeat the Taliban, who were ejected from power by US-led and Afghan forces in late 2001.

The Afghan government has been trying to coax moderate Taliban leaders to give up the fight and enter the political arena. Karzai has even offered to hold face-to-face talks with Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar if necessary.

The problem, McNeill said, was that the Taliban is a fractured force with many local factions and commands.

''One group of Taliban say they want to come back in and be part of a process, but here are the conditions. Another one is saying there are no conditions and we're not going to talk,'' he said.

''Who is the Taliban in this case? I see it as a splintered and fractured organisation that only exists under a general framework ... If you negotiate with extremists or insurgents, you should do so from a position of strength.'' REUTERS SKB DS1650

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