U.S and Taliban Negotiated over Bin Laden in 1998
State Department cables newly released to the National Archives show that the U.S. negotiated with officials from Afghanistan’s Taliban in late 1998 over the possible assassination of al Qaeda head Osama bin Laden.
During secret meetings with U.S. officials in 1998, top Taliban officials discussed assassinating or expelling Osama bin Laden in response to al Qaeda’s deadly bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, according to State Department documents. The newly declassified documents, posted Thursday on the National Archives Web site, provide a fascinating glimpse into U.S. diplomacy exerted on Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban — a regime officially unrecognized by Washington — nearly three years before the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
According to the documents, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, Alan Eastham Jr., met with Wakil Ahmed, a close aide to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in November and December 1998. That was just months after the August al Qaeda attacks that killed more than 200 people at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
During a meeting between Ahmed and Eastham on November 28, 1998, just days after the Taliban’s supreme court cleared bin Laden of terrorist activities, Ahmed said one possibility “would be for the U.S. to kill him or arrange for bin Laden to be assassinated.” Ahmed “said that the U.S., if it chose to do so, could arrange to have bin Laden killed by cruise missiles or other means, and there would be little the Taliban could do to prevent it,” according to the documents. Another alternative, Ahmed said, would be for the United States to provide the Taliban with cruise missiles to have “the situation resolved in this way.” Ahmed also noted that expelling bin Laden likely would result in the Taliban regime being overthrown, according to the documents.
And while Ahmed suggested a possible assassination of bin Laden, he also “urged the U.S. not to bomb Afghanistan again” as Washington did in the weeks following the embassy bombings. Ahmed “asked instead for a new U.S. proposal aimed at resolving the matter,” the documents said.
Ahmed expressed anger about the cruise missile attacks ordered by President Clinton on al Qaeda training camps in Khost, Afghanistan, targeting bin Laden after the embassy bombings. Twenty-two Afghans, including members of al Qaeda, were killed in the attacks. “If Kandahar could have retaliated with similar strikes against Washington, it would have,” Ahmed said, according to the documents. “I consider you as murderers of Afghans,” Ahmed told Eastham. “The U.S. said bin Laden had killed innocent people, but had not the U.S. killed innocent Afghans in Khost too? Was this not a crime?”
At the same time, U.S. officials were under no illusions about the prospects of Taliban cooperation: “The fact is that the leader of the Taliban appears to be strongly committed to bin Laden. It is questionable whether U.S. or Saudi efforts can influence Omar’s decisions.”
By the end of the November 28 meeting, pressed on why the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden, Ahmed said that the Afghan people “would not understand why the Taliban had expelled a man who was regarded as a ‘great mujahid,’ or Islamic fighter, during the war against the Soviets. They would reject the Taliban if the Taliban took this action.” Eastham responded by telling Ahmed the Taliban had to recognize for itself “that the role of political leadership is to shape public opinion, not to decline to act because they think opinion is otherwise.”
The cable concluded that Ahmed “wanted very strongly to convey the message that the Taliban did not consider the bin Laden matter resolved in the wake of the recent [Afghani] supreme court decision [exhonerating bin Laden].” But within a month, it was clear the Taliban had hardened its position. “We have little indication that anything we said got through to” Ahmed, a cable said about the December 19 meeting.
I would be interested in looking at these cables in full to get my own impression. Still, these excerpts provide a fascinating glimpse into what must be the maddening world of East Asian diplomacy.
If the portions provided in the account above provide a fair picture, however, it seems clear that the reality is much more complicated than the “Taliban wanted to turn bin Laden over but the Clinton team was too weak” meme that has been circulating since roughly September 12, 2001. Indeed, while some senior Taliban officials clearly thought bin Laden a danger to their own existence, they clearly believed that they could take no overt action to turn him over to the hated Americans.
Having him killed by American cruise missiles, which the Taliban would have been powerless to prevent, would have given them the best of all worlds: a dead bin Laden who would simultaneously be out of their way and a martyr good for diverting attention and the ability to rail about American murderers. Cruise missiles are not exactly the weapon of choice for assassination, however, and it is quite unclear that bin Laden’s precise coordinates were available.