ISAFMedia photo

In a very interesting bit of coincidental timing, two stories have emerged on the role of Iran in Afghanistan. The Times of London (behind a subscription paywall) reported on Friday that “intelligence officials have revealed that the Iranian government is releasing significant al-Qaeda terrorists from jail so that they can help to reorganise its battered structures in border areas of Pakistan.” The Times also reported that Iran is directly aiding the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Conveniently providing confirmation for this story, NATO informed the press that an Iranian Revolutionary Guard al-Quds officer was captured Saturday by NATO forces in southern Afghanistan.

Dawn (via AFP) provided more details from The Times’ article:

Citing Pakistani and Middle Eastern officials speaking anonymously, the Times said Iranian authorities were giving covert support to the Islamist militants as they fight against Nato troops.

“In many cases they are being facilitated by Iranian Revolutionary Guards,” The Times quoted a senior Pakistani intelligence official as saying.

The Times said those released include Saif al-Adel, a high-ranking Egyptian al Qaeda member on the FBI’s most wanted list for alleged involvement in the deadly 1998 bombings of US embassies in East Africa.

They also include Suleiman Abu Ghaith, a Kuwaiti accused of being Al-Qaeda’s official spokesman at the time of the September 11, 2001 attacks, and Abu Khayr al-Masri, a key aide to al Qaeda deputy leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri.

Three members of the family of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden were also among those freed, the officials were quoted by the Times as saying.

More details on the captured Iranian come from AFP:

The man, described as a “key Taliban weapons facilitator”, was captured Saturday in Zhari district, Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, a volatile district targeted in recent coalition offensives.

He was targeted “for facilitating the movement of weapons between Iran and Kandahar through Nimroz province,” a spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) said.

It is thought he was connected to smuggling small arms between the countries.

“The now-detained man was considered a Kandahar-based weapons facilitator with direct ties to other Taliban leaders in the province,” the ISAF spokesman added in a statement.

The most interesting part about the timing of these two stories is that they came out just as the US (or ISAF), Afghanistan and Pakistan were holding their Tripartite Commission. The photo above comes from Thursday. ISAFMedia provided the following caption for the photo:

Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the International Security Assistance Force, met with Afghan Chief of General Staff LTG Sher Mahammed Karimi, and Pakistan Chief of Army Staff Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, during a Tripartite Commission, Dec. 23. The commission is a recurring event, and today’s discussions centered on regional cooperation and economic development, as well as post-Lisbon way ahead on reconciliation and reintegration programs and transition. ISAF is a key component of the international community’s engagement in Afghanistan, assisting Afghan authorities in providing security and stability while creating the conditions for reconstruction development.

Given that this meeting was going on at the time of the revelations of Iran’s involvement, it is interesting to go back and note that the story on Iran’s release of al Qaeda militants states that the information comes primarily from Pakistani sources. Further, the AFP article on the capture of the Iranian in Afghanistan observes:

Kabul has insisted that Iran, as a neighbouring country, has a legitimate concern in helping the reconstruction and development of Afghanistan.

So it would appear that while Afghanistan sees a “legimate” role for Iran in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the US are doing their best to keep Iran in a negative light while they meet with Afghanistan to discuss reconstruction.