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Is the US Providing Support to Jundallah?

03/11/2009

The idea that the US would in any way provide assistance to a terrorist group affiliated with the Taliban and Al Qaeda must seem laughable to many. Yet this is exactly what the Iranian government and an array of international observers believe to be the case. In the wake of last week’s revelation that Ahmed Wali Karzai is apparently on the CIA payroll, it’s worth remembering the long history of covert US support for unpalatable characters and the resilience of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ thinking.

Let’s not also forget that the ‘global war on terror’ is not the only focus of US strategic thinking, and there are bound to be times where its objectives conflict with other important strategic considerations – such as the ongoing US confrontation with Iran.

To be clear from the outset: the US emphatically denies providing any support to Jundallah, which rocketed back into the news recently with a dramatic suicide bombing in Sistan-Baluchistan that killed several dozen people, including high-level Revolutionary Guard officers. Formed in 2003, Jundallah is a extremist Sunni group (most closely affiliated with the Deobandi tradition) that engages in violence in support of a typical narrative of self-defence, in this case on behalf of the ethnically, religiously and linguistically distinct Baluchi people.

While Baluchi separatism remains a potent cause across the three states in which they are found – Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan – Jundallah specifically focuses on Iran’s Shi’ite regime and claims to fight not for separatism but merely greater rights and equality. Based in Pakistani territory, it has carried out a number of attacks in Iran in the past few years, including car bombs, ambushes, mass abductions and suicide attacks. Jundallah has apparently strong links to Pakistani Taliban networks and alleged connections to Al Qaeda; it shares both organisations’ vehement anti-Shi’a rhetoric and violence.

Like most militant groups, Jundallah requires a significant amount of funding whose sources are murky at best. There is little doubt that the group profits from the enormous flow of drugs traversing the Pakistan-Iran border in that region (by providing protection rackets rather than direct involvement in the trade itself). Beyond that, we are in the realm of allegations, suspicions and denials. Iran has accused not only the US but Pakistan and Saudi Arabia of supporting Jundallah.

There is, of course, a broad spectrum of activities that could fall under the rubric of ‘support’, from direct financial and military assistance to covert training to network development. Outside of the Iranian government, few seem to believe that the US is directly funding Jundallah or providing it with weapons or other military assistance.

A more likely scenario, as described in an ABC News report, is that the US has facilitated funding from other sources (such as the Saudis and expat Iranians) while also playing some kind of covert ‘advisory’ role. The aim would be to make use of Iran’s indigenous opposition groups to destabilise and eventually bring down the current regime, a strategy that gained some currency during the Bush administration as a means of forestalling Iranian nuclear development without direct military intervention. But as a recent Foreign Policy article noted:

“[T]he Barack Obama administration might be tempted to use direct or indirect funding as a means of surrogate warfare to further pressure Iran’s government. Violent anti-Iranian Sunni groups like Jundallah have not been placed on the U.S. State Department’s terrorism list. And the Obama administration might feel that it’s already being punished for the perception that it’s funding the rebels and may as well try to reap some of the rewards.
But this would be shortsighted. The basic problem with any strategy to destabilize Iran via Sunni tribal rebellions is that Baluch nationalism spans three countries — not just Iran, but also Afghanistan and Pakistan. Supporting a pan-Baluchistan movement would only worsen societal instability and national fragmentation in West Asia and South Asia.”

The question of US support for Jundallah highlights a flaw in concepts like the ‘global war on terror’ and ‘global insurgency’.  If we conceive of our worldwide struggle against terrorism and extremism as a unitary effort, this implies some level of consistency and ideological rigour – we will combat terrorism in any manifestation, in any location.

However, this kind of analytical framework does not always match real-world political and strategic considerations, in which the temptation to utilise terrorist groups as proxy armies against our adversaries must be fairly high.

Has the US given in to this temptation? In the absence of ‘smoking gun’ evidence, I remain agnostic on this question. If hard evidence of US support (indirect or otherwise) were to surface tomorrow, however, I would not be in the least surprised. Would you?