Until two months ago, Hamid had spent the better part of the past decade under house arrest in Iran, he said, after being detained entering the country when Afghanistan fell to coalition forces in late 2001. His detention, he told me, "was a very bad experience that affected my family and I greatly in health and morale. But it also had one benefit for me: I was sitting and writing. Without being in jail, I think I would have never finished my books."
Now, after a sustained lobbying campaign by family members, Hamid is free. We met back in his Egyptian homeland nearly two years after we first began talking online, a months-long conversation (and, at times, debate) we had over email about our respective ideas.
"I thought Iran intended to hold me forever," he said when we met at the cafe. "They denied that I was there but after the campaign from my family, my presence became known and if the outside world knows someone is there, then they have a chance of a deal being made for their release."
Hamid knows more than most about the machinations driving Iran's detention and release of foreign fighters who had illegally crossed its borders; he served at times as the unofficial Taliban emissary to the country. But he hotly contests that he represented al Qaeda or its interests to the government in Iran, as is alleged by the United States.
"Al Qaeda did not send me, nobody sent me. I made the proposal to Mullah Omar to reach out to Iran when he came to visit us in the village south of Kandahar airport, in 1997, and he agreed." The proposal Hamid recounts would have been part of efforts aimed at unlocking the Iranian embargo that later intensified after several Iranian diplomats were killed in 1998 by Taliban forces at Mazar-i-Sharif, an event that also led Iranian forces to mass at the border. "The closing of the borders brought great harm to the Afghan people," Hamid says.
Hamid suggested to Omar that the Taliban try to normalize relations with Iran as well as Pakistan, he says, which was also "causing problems at the border" at the time. "I told Mullah Omar that he should seek good relations with these countries because Afghanistan had no ports and no sea access, so my argument for reaching out was from the strategic point of view," Hamid says.
Hamid says that Omar agreed, dispatching him to talk to their Iranian counterparts about normalizing relations and opening up cross-border routes for supplies and food. But Hamid failed, and the effort was unpopular among a key constituency. Some within al Qaeda were unhappy that Hamid had talked to Iranian officials and were very aggressive to him when he returned, he told me. Still, al Qaeda also wanted to engage with Iran, Hamid says, but for different purposes. It wanted to establish its own private transit routes through the country, according to Hamid. "Al Qaeda tried to find its own routes into and out of Afghanistan without the Iranian government and tried to do it through Baluchistan," an ethnic region spanning Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.