The United States and Iran were on a course to work closely together on the war against al-Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan in late 2001 and early 2002 until Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stepped in to scuttle that cooperation, according to officials who were involved at the time.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, U.S. officials responsible for preparing for war in Afghanistan needed Iran’s help to unseat the Taliban and establish a stable government in Kabul. Iran had organized resistance by the Northern Alliance and had provided arms and funding at a time when the United States had been unwilling to do so.
"The Iranians had real contacts with important players in Afghanistan and were prepared to use their influence in constructive ways in coordination with the United States," recalls Flynt Leverett, then senior director for Middle East affairs in the National Security Council (NSC), in an interview with IPS.
In October 2001, as the United States was just beginning its military operations in Afghanistan, State Department and NSC officials began meeting secretly with Iranian diplomats in Paris and Geneva, under the sponsorship of Lakhdar Brahimi, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Leverett says these discussions focused on "how to effectively unseat the Taliban and once the Taliban was gone, how to stand up an Afghan government."
It was thanks to the Northern Alliance Afghan troops, which were supported primarily by the Iranians, that the Taliban was driven out of Kabul in mid-November. Two weeks later, the Afghan opposition groups were convened in Bonn under United Nations auspices to agree on a successor regime.
At that meeting, the Northern Alliance was demanding 60 percent of the portfolios in an interim government, which was blocking agreement by other opposition groups. According to U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan James Dobbins, Iran played a "decisive role" in persuading the Northern Alliance delegate to compromise. Dobbins also recalls how the Iranians insisted on including language in the Bonn agreement on the war on terrorism.
The bureaucracy recognized that there was an opportunity to work with Iran not only on stabilizing Afghanistan but on al-Qaeda as well. As reported by the Washington Post on Oct. 22, 2004, the State Department’s policy planning staff had written a paper in late November 2001 suggesting that the United States should propose more formal arrangements for cooperation with Iran on fighting al-Qaeda.
That would have involved exchanging intelligence information with Tehran as well as coordinating border sweeps to capture al-Qaeda fighters and leaders who were already beginning to move across the border into Pakistan and Iran. The CIA agreed with the proposal, according to the Post‘s sources, as did the head of the White House Office for Combating Terrorism, retired Gen. Wayne A. Downing.
But the cooperation against al-Qaeda was not the priority for the anti-Iranian interests in the White House and the Pentagon. Investigative journalist Bob Woodward’s book Plan of Attack recounts that Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, who chaired an interagency committee on Iran policy dealing with issues surrounding Afghanistan, learned that the White House intended to include Iran as a member of the "axis of evil" in Bush’s State of the Union message in January.
Hadley expressed reservations about that plan at one point, but was told by Bush directly that Iran had to stay in. By the end of December, Hadley had decided, against the recommendations of the State Department, CIA, and White House counter-terrorism office, that the United States would not share any information with Iran on al-Qaeda, even though it would press the Iranians for such intelligence, as well as to turn over any al-Qaeda members it captured to the appropriate home country.
Soon after that decision, hardliners presented Iranian policy to Bush and the public as hostile to U.S. aims in Afghanistan and refusing to cooperate with the war on terror the opposite of what officials directly involved had witnessed.
On Jan. 11, 2002, the New York Times quoted Pentagon and intelligence officials as saying that Iran had given "safe haven" to fleeing al-Qaeda fighters in order to use them against the United States in post-Taliban Afghanistan. That same day, Bush declared "Iran must be a contributor in the war against terror."
"Our nation, in our fight against terrorism, will uphold the doctrine of ‘either you’re with us or against us,’" he said.
Officials who were familiar with the intelligence at that point agree that the "safe haven for al-Qaeda" charge was not based on any genuine analysis by the intelligence community.
"I wasn’t aware of any intelligence supporting that charge," recalls Dobbins, who was still the primary point of contact with Iranian officials about cooperation on Afghanistan. "I certainly would have seen it had there been any such intelligence. Nobody told me they were harboring al-Qaeda."
Iran had already increased its troop strength on the Afghan border in response to U.S. requests. As the Washington Post reported in 2004, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Javad Zarif brought a dossier to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in early February with the photos of 290 men believed to be al-Qaeda members who already been detained fleeing from Afghanistan.
Later, hundreds of al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees were repatriated to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and other Arab and European countries, according to news reports.
The hardliners would complain that the Iranians did not turn over any top al-Qaeda leaders. But the United States had just rejected any exchange of information with the very officials with whom it needed to discuss the question of al-Qaeda the Iranian intelligence and security ministry.
The same administration officials told the Times that Iran was seeking to exert its influence in border regions in western Afghanistan by shipping arms to its Afghan allies in the war against the Taliban and that this could undermine the interim government and Washington’s long-term interests in Afghanistan.
But in March 2002, Iranian official met with Dobbins in Geneva during a UN conference on Afghanistan’s security needs. Dobbins recalls that the Iranian delegation brought with it the general who had been responsible for military assistance to the Northern Alliance during the long fight against the Taliban.
The general offered to provide training, uniforms, equipment, and barracks for as many as 20,000 new recruits for the nascent Afghan military. All this was to be done under U.S. leadership, Dobbins recalls, not as part of a separate program under exclusive Iranian control.
"The Iranians later confirmed that they did this as a gesture to the United States," says Dobbins.
Dobbins returned to Washington to inform key administration officials of what he regarded as an opportunity for a new level of cooperation in Afghanistan. He briefed then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Rumsfeld personally. "To my knowledge, there was never a response," he says.
(Inter Press Service)