The Taliban claimed in a 1997 meeting with U.S. officials that it had blocked attempts by both Iraq and Iran to contact Osama bin Laden, according to a previously confidential State Department memo made public yesterday.
The memo says that the assistant secretary of state, Karl Inderfurth, was told on Dec. 7, 1997, by the Taliban’s acting minister of mines and industry, Armad Jan, that his government “had stopped allowing [bin Laden] to give public interviews and had frustrated Iranian and Iraqi efforts to contact him.”
Contacted yesterday, Mr. Inderfurth said he did not believe the Taliban claim was credible at the time, and that he had no recollection of Taliban officials mentioning Iraqi or Iranian attempts to meet bin Laden in the following 19 meetings he would attend with the de facto Afghan regime for the next four years.
“I never saw any evidence in anything I was doing where there were any Iraqi connections,” said Mr. Inderfurth, who was the Clinton administration’s senior State Department official for South Asia.
“The Iraqis were not to my knowledge, players in the Afghan conflict. Almost every other country in the region was.”
The memo, however, discloses a previously unreported link, or at least an Iraqi attempt to establish a link, with bin Laden, the mastermind of the September 11 attacks on the United States.
The document was published by the National Security Archives, an independent institute located at George Washington University. It specializes in using the Freedom of Information Act and other legal means to obtain previously classified material for public release.
The Taliban conveyed its 1997 message to the State Department in the context of a broader pitch to improve ties with Washington.
During the meeting, the Taliban representatives requested agricultural assistance, recommended the United States reopen its embassy in Kabul and said they had been instructed by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to present a paper that opened with these words:
“The Islamic State of Afghanistan wants friendly relations with the U.S. and all countries of the world based on mutual respect and non-interference.”
In February 2003, prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell laid out evidence of an Iraq link to bin Laden, claiming that Iraqi intelligence agents had provided training in document forgery to al Qaeda.
He also spoke of links between the terrorist group and Iraq that went back to the early 1990s when bin Laden took refuge in Sudan.
In that presentation, Mr. Powell said, “A senior defector, one of Saddam’s former intelligence chiefs in Europe, says Saddam sent his agents to Afghanistan sometime in the mid-1990s to provide training to al Qaeda members on document forgery.”
The Taliban’s claim that they had been aware of and sought to stop Iraqi efforts to contact bin Laden now appears to back up Mr. Powell’s Feb. 5 presentation.
Since before the Iraq war, administration assertions of a link between Iraq and bin Laden have been widely criticized as exaggerated.
“I’m sure some Iraqi official met with some al Qaeda somewhere, but that does not demonstrate that two are working closely together,” said Daniel Byman, an assistant professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
He pointed out that the United States has held captive several senior Iraqi officials who would have knowledge of any pre-Iraqi war connection with al Qaeda and yet no new evidence has been made public.
“We have a lot of senior al Qaeda folks captive and there are reasons we want to publicize these links,” he said.
For example, Farouk Hijazi, a former senior Iraqi intelligence agent and ambassador to Tunisia who was reported to have met bin Laden in December 1998, has been in U.S. custody since late April.
But with the Bush administration’s latest approach to the United Nations, much of the concern appears to have shifted to the presence of militant Islamists fighting in Iraq, in addition to secular Ba’ath Party operatives loyal to Saddam.
U.S. officials believe al Qaeda is active in Iraq, especially in some of the suicide attacks against Americans and other targets.
“We are now starting to see terrorists come into Iraq who could represent, and we are quite confident represent al Qaeda elements,” Mr. Powell told Al Jazeera satellite television in an interview this week.