Diplomats Met With Taliban on Bin Laden
Some Contend U.S.
Missed Its Chance
David B. Ottaway and Joe Stephens Washington Post Staff
October 29, 2001; Page A1
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.
Throughout the years,
however, State Department officials refused to soften their demand that bin
Laden face trial in the U.S. justice system. It also remained murky whether
the Taliban envoys, representing at least one division of the fractious
Islamic movement, could actually deliver on their promises.
The exchanges lie at the
heart of a long and largely untold history of diplomatic efforts between
the State Department and Afghanistan's ruling regime that paralleled covert
CIA actions to take bin Laden. In the end, both diplomatic and covert
efforts proved fruitless.
In interviews, U.S.
participants and sources close to the Taliban discussed the exchanges in
detail and debated whether the State Department should have been more
flexible in its hard-line stance. Earlier this month, President Bush
summarily rejected another Taliban offer to give up bin Laden to a neutral
third country. "We know he's guilty. Turn him over," Bush said.
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"
"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.' "
State Department officials
assert that despite hours of talks and proposals that were infuriatingly
vague, the Afghan rulers never truly intended to give up bin Laden.
U.S. negotiators started out
"very, very patient," one official said. But over the course of
many meetings, the envoys "lost all patience with them because they
kept saying they would do something and they did exactly nothing."
The meetings took place in
Tashkent, Kandahar, Islamabad, Bonn, New York and Washington. There were
surprise satellite calls, one of which led to a 40-minute chat between a
mid-level State Department bureaucrat and the Taliban's supreme leader,
Mohammad Omar. There was a surprise visit to Washington, made by a Taliban
envoy bearing a gift carpet for Bush.
The diplomatic effort to
snare bin Laden began as early as 1996, when officials devised a plan to
use back channels to Sudan, one of seven countries on the U.S. list of
terrorist-supporting states. Under the plan, bin Laden would be arrested in
Khartoum and extradited to Saudi Arabia, which would turn him over to the
But the United States could
not persuade the Saudis to accept bin Laden, and Sudan instead expelled him
to Afghanistan in May 1996 -- a few months before the Taliban seized power
The Clinton administration
did not begin seriously pressing the Taliban for bin Laden's expulsion
until the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that
killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured 4,600.
The bombings were "a
seminal moment," changing Washington's view of the Taliban, an
administration official said. The attacks convinced U.S. policymakers that
Omar was no longer simply interested in conquering Afghanistan, but that
his protection was allowing bin Laden, a longtime friend, to engage in
terrorist ventures abroad.
U.S. officials launched a two-pronged
policy to pressure the Taliban into handing over bin Laden. On the one
hand, the United States used the United Nations and the threat of
sanctions. On the other, it began a hard-nosed dialogue.
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."
On Feb. 3, 1999, U.S.
Assistant Secretary of State Karl E. Inderfurth, the Clinton
administration's point man for talks with the Taliban, and Michael Sheehan,
State Department counterterrorism chief, went to Islamabad to deliver a
stern message to the Taliban's deputy foreign minister, Abdul Jalil: The
United States henceforth would hold the Taliban responsible for any
terrorist act by bin Laden.
By that time, bin Laden had
been indicted for his alleged role in the embassy bombings. The officials
reviewed the indictment in detail with the Taliban and offered to provide
more evidence if the Taliban sent a delegation to New York. The Taliban did
not do so.
Immediately after the U.S.
warning, Taliban security forces took bin Laden from his Kandahar compound
and spirited him away to a remote site, according to media reports at the
time. They also seized his satellite communications and barred him from
contact with the media.
Publicly, the Taliban said
they no longer knew where he was. Inderfurth now says the United States
interpreted such statements "as an effort to evade their
responsibility to turn him over."
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."
U.N. pressure steadily
mounted. 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
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.
When the United States
rejected that proposal, the Taliban countered that it would settle for only
one Islamic jurist on such a panel, a source close to the Taliban
Taliban leaders also kept
demanding the United States provide more evidence of bin Laden's terrorist
"It became clear that
the call for more evidence was more a delaying tactic than a sincere effort
to solve the bin Laden issue," Inderfurth said.
Throughout 1999 and 2000,
Inderfurth, Sheehan and Thomas R. Pickering, then undersecretary of state,
continued meeting in Washington, Islamabad, New York and Bonn to review
evidence against bin Laden. They warned of war if there were another
"We saw a continuing
effort to evade, deny and obfuscate," Inderfurth said. "They had
no interest in an international panel, really. Their only intention was not
to hand bin Laden over."
Phyllis E. Oakley, head of
the State Department's intelligence bureau in the late 1990s, said her
bureau concluded Omar would never give up bin Laden.
Last March, Rahmatullah
Hashimi, a 24-year-old Taliban envoy, arrived in Washington on a surprise
visit, meeting with reporters, middle-ranking State Department bureaucrats
and private Afghanistan experts. He carried a gift carpet and a letter from
Omar, both meant for President Bush.
Hashimi said he had come with
a new offer, but U.S. officials now dismiss his visit as just another
feint. They say Hashimi simply wanted to know whether the new
administration had a fresh idea for breaking the deadlock.
Yet the two sides kept
meeting, mostly in Islamabad. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca
saw Taliban ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef there in early August, and U.S.
embassy officials held secret talks with Taliban security chief Hameed
Rasoli. The Taliban invited a U.S. delegation to Kandahar, but the United
States refused unless a solution for handing over bin Laden was first
reached, a source close to the Taliban said.
Even after Sept. 11, as U.S.
aircraft carriers and warplanes rushed toward Afghanistan, the Taliban's
mysterious maneuvering continued.
Bearden, the former CIA
administrator, picked up his phone in Reston in early October and dialed a
satellite number in Kandahar. Hashimi answered, still full of optimism that
Saudi clerics and an upcoming conference of Islamic nations would give
their blessing to Bush's demand that they "cough him up."
"There was a 50-50
chance something could happen," Hashimi told Bearden, "if the
Saudis stepped in."
Five days later, bin Laden
remained at large and the United States began pummeling Kandahar and other
"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."
Staff writers Gilbert M.
Gaul, Mary Pat Flaherty and James V. Grimaldi and researcher Alice Crites
contributed to this report.