Earlier this month, the Taliban offered what was essentially a guarantee to prevent the return of Al Qaeda to Afghanistan in return for a withdraw of foreign troops. As Anand Gopal reported in the Wall Street Journal:
The Taliban said in a statement Saturday they would provide a “legal guarantee” that they wouldn’t intervene in foreign countries if international troops withdraw from Afghanistan, the closest the movement has come to publicly distancing itself from al Qaeda.
The Taliban have “no agenda of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries and is ready to give legal guarantee if the foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan,” the group said in a statement emailed to news organizations.
Gopal reported the U.S. response as follows:
U.S. officials are skeptical that the Taliban can be taken at their word. “This is the same group that refused to give up [Osama] bin Laden, even though they could have saved their country from war,” said a U.S. official. “They wouldn’t break with terrorists then, so why would we take them seriously now?”
But, on the contrary, the Taliban was reportedly furious at Osama bin Laden, who had offered them a written pledge not to engage in any attacks on other countries from his base in Afghanistan.
As for the assertion that the Taliban “refused to give up bin Laden”, while it’s certainly become an obligatory part of the official legend of 9/11 and the subsequent “war on terrorism”, it’s not exactly the whole story. They did refuse, yes, but only after offering to turn bin Laden over if the U.S. provided the evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. refused to provide the evidence; ergo the Taliban refused to turn him over.
Take this headline from the Guardian on October 14, 2001, for example:
Bush rejects Taliban offer to hand Bin Laden over
That article went on to note:
The Taliban would be ready to discuss handing over Osama bin Laden to a neutral country if the US halted the bombing of Afghanistan, a senior Taliban official said today.Afghanistan’s deputy prime minister, Haji Abdul Kabir, told reporters that the Taliban would require evidence that Bin Laden was behind the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US.
“If the Taliban is given evidence that Osama bin Laden is involved” and the bombing campaign stopped, “we would be ready to hand him over to a third country”, Mr Kabir added.
This was reported by the AP as well:
Bush strongly rebuffed a Taliban offer to turn over bin Laden to a third country if the bombing stopped. “We know he’s guilty. Turn him over,” the president demanded Sunday as the U.S. military strikes in Afghanistan entered their second week.
This was the headline in The Independent:
Bush rejects Taliban offer to surrender bin Laden
That article also noted that this wasn’t the first time the Taliban had made that offer, but a repetition of the same offer they had made previously.
A short time later, the Washington Post revealed [article has been removed from the link, archived at Infowars] that the U.S. had been talking to the Taliban for years about having bin Laden turned over. The Taliban had been making that same offer, to turn over bin Laden to a neutral third country upon receipt of evidence of his guilt in terrorist activities, since long before 9/11.
Over three years and on as many continents, U.S. officials met in public and secret at least 20 times with Taliban representatives to discuss ways the regime could bring suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden to justice.
Talks continued until just days before the Sept. 11 attacks, and Taliban representatives repeatedly suggested they would hand over bin Laden if their conditions were met, sources close to the discussions said.
The Post article added:
Some Afghan experts argue that throughout the negotiations, the United States never recognized the Taliban need for aabroh, the Pashtu word for “face-saving formula.” Officials never found a way to ease the Taliban’s fear of embarrassment if it turned over a fellow Muslim to an “infidel” Western power.
“We were not serious about the whole thing, not only this administration but the previous one,” said Richard Hrair Dekmejian, an expert in Islamic fundamentalism and author at the University of Southern California. “We did not engage these people creatively. There were missed opportunities.”
U.S. officials struggled to communicate with Muslim clerics unfamiliar with modern diplomacy and distrustful of the Western world, and they failed to take advantage of fractures in the Taliban leadership.
“We never heard what they were trying to say,” said Milton Bearden, a former CIA station chief who oversaw U.S. covert operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s. “We had no common language. Ours was, ‘Give up bin Laden.’ They were saying, ‘Do something to help us give him up.’ “
The Taliban offer went back to 1998 and the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya:
Within days of the embassy bombings, State Department officer Michael Malinowski began telephoning Taliban officials. On one occasion, Malinowski, lounging on the deck of his Washington home, spoke by telephone with Omar.
“I would say, ‘Hey, give up bin Laden,’ and they would say, ‘No. . . . Show us the evidence,’ ” Malinowski said. Taliban leaders argued they could not expel a guest, and Malinowski responded, “It is not all right if this visitor goes up to the roof of your house and shoots his gun at his neighbors.”
Subsequently, the U.S. went over the indictment of bin Laden for those bombings with Taliban officials, but their response was that they needed more evidence, and that they didn’t know where bin Laden was anyway. The U.S. responded with scorn:
“It became clear that the call for more evidence was more a delaying tactic than a sincere effort to solve the bin Laden issue,” [then Assistant Secretary of State Karl E. Inderfurth] Inderfurth said.
Their insistence on more evidence was not necessarily unreasonable. The U.S. itself acknowledges that its case was circumstantial and that it wasn’t until years after the bombings that stronger, more direct evidence against bin Laden came to light. For example, it wasn’t until 2000 that U.S. Army Special Forces, FBI informant, CIA asset, and terrorist operative Ali Mohammed told his interrogators that bin Laden himself had chosen the targets.
As the Post notes, there was also more than one interpretation for their saying they didn’t know where bin Laden was. The first was that the Taliban was evading responsibility to turn him over. The alternative was given by Bearden:
Others, however, say the cryptic statements should have been interpreted differently. Bearden, for example, believes the Taliban more than once set up bin Laden for capture by the United States and communicated its intent by saying he was lost.
“Every time the Afghans said, ‘He’s lost again,’ they are saying something. They are saying, ‘He’s no longer under our protection,’ ” Bearden said. “They thought they were signaling us subtly, and we don’t do signals.”
This interpretation is supported by the Taliban’s continued offer to hand bin Laden over to a third country:
In October 1999, a Security Council resolution demanded the Taliban turn over bin Laden to “appropriate authorities” but left open the possibility he could be tried somewhere besides a U.S. court.In response, the Taliban proposed bringing bin Laden to justice, either in Afghanistan or another Muslim country.
One Taliban proposal suggested bin Laden be turned over to a panel of three Islamic jurists, one each chosen by Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The U.S. rejected that proposal, as well. The Taliban remained firm in their offer. But, as noted, the U.S. repeatedly rejected their offer, and, concludes the Post:
Five days later, bin Laden remained at large and the United States began pummeling Kandahar and other Taliban strongholds.
“I have no doubts they wanted to get rid of him. He was a pain in the neck,” Bearden said of bin Laden. “It never clicked.”
The Taliban shortly after these initial offers, as the bombing continued, reportedly made the enormous concession to the U.S. of offering to turn over bin Laden to a third country, without seeking the evidence against him for the 9/11 attacks.
Like the Taliban offer to hand over bin Laden, reports investigative journalist Gareth Porter, with regard to the recent offer to deny Al Qaeda safe haven:
The Barack Obama administration is refusing to acknowledge an offer by the leadership of the Taliban in early December to give “legal guarantees” that they will not allow Afghanistan to be used for attacks on other countries.
The statement did not mention al-Qaeda by name or elaborate on what was meant by “legal guarantees” against such “meddling”, but it was an obvious response to past US insistence that the US war in Afghanistan is necessary to prevent al-Qaeda from having a safe haven in Afghanistan once again.
It suggested that the Taliban were interested in negotiating an agreement with the United States involving a public Taliban renunciation of ties with al-Qaeda, along with some undefined arrangements to enforce a ban on al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan in return for a commitment to a timetable for withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.
Just how serious was the Taliban in its offers to turn over bin Laden? We’ll never know, because diplomacy was rejected in favor of the resort to violence. An important opportunity may very well have been lost.
How serious is the Taliban in its current offer? There’s seems little reason to doubt their sincerity. Alas, if the U.S. non-response is any indication, yet another important opportunity may very well have already been lost.