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Unholy Alliance

Newly released documents provide evidence of Iranian collaboration with the Taliban in October of 2001.

6:31 PM, Mar 8, 2006 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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An adviser to [Herat] warlord Ismail Khan told TIME that shortly before the U.S. bombing campaign began in October, a high-ranking Iranian official connected to the hard-line supreme leader Ayatollah Khameini had been dispatched to Kabul to offer secret sanctuary to Taliban and al Qaeda fugitives. The Iranian official was apparently trapped in Kabul during the bombing, and remained there until the Northern Alliance took control of the city. Although the Iranians despised the Taliban for their persecution of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan, their hatred for the U.S. may have run deeper.

And, according to sources in Herat, the Taliban and al Qaeda took the Iranians up on their offer.
Shortly before Herat's Taliban garrison fled in November, a convoy of 50 off-road vehicles carrying some 250 senior Taliban and al Qaeda members allegedly crossed over into Iran, using a smugglers' route through the hills about 20 miles north of the city. A Western diplomat in Afghanistan claims that groups of Taliban and al Qaeda are still threading their way through the mountains of central Afghanistan and heading for the Iranian border. "The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has an eye on everything that happens along the border," says the diplomat. "Of course they know that Taliban and al Qaeda fighters are getting across."

There is no evidence in the newly released transcript that al Qaeda representatives attended the meeting in October 2001 in Herat. And the deposed governor pleads with the tribunal to "not accuse any of the Taliban as being al Qaeda." He also denies that there was any significant al Qaeda presence in Herat adding, "we would not do anything for al Qaeda."

But the detainee's denials ring hallow. Given what we know about al Qaeda's intimate relationship with the Taliban, Abu Musab al Zarqawi's training camps in Herat, and al Qaeda's history with Iran, it would behoove U.S. officials to press for additional information on the meeting, if they haven't already.

The importance of this allegation goes beyond understanding Iran's past behavior. Currently, some analysts assume that fear of U.S. retribution limits Iranian interference in Iraq and support for al Qaeda. But if Iran's leadership agreed to set aside its differences with the Taliban in order to stymie American operations against al Qaeda, then such assumptions are clearly no longer valid.

Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.