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In the months leading up to the September 11 terror attacks, the Bush administration had Osama bin Laden on its radar. He was not a household name in America yet, but top administration officials regarded him as a mortal enemy. Secretary of State Colin Powell was among those deeply concerned about bin Laden’s ability to launch or provoke serious terror attacks – and to influence large swaths of the Muslim world, where many admired him and were drawn to his hate-filled anti-Americanism.
Secret diplomatic cables just released by WikiLeaks show that ten years ago, just months before 9/11, top Bush officials were attempting to bring bin Laden to justice for outrages that included his role in the truck-bombing attacks of U.S. embassies in the East African cities of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. However, Washington was getting nowhere with the Taliban.
The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, was getting stalled, stonewalled, and lied to by the Taliban in response to repeated queries and demands about bin Laden’s whereabouts and the Taliban’s pledges to close terror-training camps, according to diplomatic cables classified as “secret.”
The subject line of one secret cable: “Taliban claim Bin Laden out of their territory.” Dated February 19, 1999, it was written by President Clinton’s deputy secretary of state, Strobe Talbott, based on information provided by a top Taliban figure, Abdul Hakeem Mujahid, who was considered a “moderate” Taliban member.
Sounding upbeat, Talbott wrote:
Mujahid has long indicated his own opposition to UBL and support for better relations between the U.S. and the Taliban. It was clearly gratifying for him to deliver the news that UBL had left tall ban territory. Mujahid was more emotional during this session than in any previous encounter.
The diplomatic back and forth between Washington and Taliban officials over bin Laden’s whereabouts up until the eve of 9/11 is eerily similar to Washington’s negotiations over the years with North Korea and Iran about their nuclear weapons programs.
Read in the hindsight of 9/11, the cables provide a fascinating and sometimes comic and even depressing glimpse into the minds of officials in the Clinton and Bush administrations as they tried, during the late 90s and in early 2001, to find common ground and shared interests with the Taliban – with the aim of neutralizing bin Laden or bringing him to justice (though not necessarily kill him) and to shut down bin Laden’s terror-training camps in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.
During the Clinton years in particular, some diplomatic cables give the sense that State Department officials viewed Taliban leaders as people who would listen to reason; or who could be shamed or pressured into doing the right thing with respect to their famous guest, Osama bin Laden, and his terror-training camps.
It’s the only thing to conclude from a secret cable sent by Clinton’s Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, on February 26, 1998. Its subject line: “Usama bin Laden’s statement about jihad against the U.S.”
Albright noted her cable was responding to bin Laden’s recent statement “calling for all Muslims to engage in a holy war against Americans.”
Sent to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, it contained helpful “talking points” for embassy officials. Per Albright’s instructions, they were to convey the following to the Taliban:
- “We find statements of this kind, open invitations to carry out terrorist attacks against innocent people to be outrageous and totally unacceptable.”
- “We have discussed our concerns about Usama bin Laden’s inflamatory (sic) remarks and anti-American rhetoric before. We were given assurances that negative actions like this would be curbed.”
- “You should convey to bin Laden and his supporters in Afghanistan that this advocacy of violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
- “These kinds of statements by Bin Laden also reflect poorly on the Taliban, as he enjoys your hospitality.”
How might the Taliban have reacted to the talking points in Albright’s February 26 cable? It should have been obvious to her and anybody who knew what they were doing, and had already done. In Kabul, for instance, they demonstrated their Islamo-facist credentials in February, 1998 — just like Germany’s Nazis had demonstrated their thug credentials in November 1938, with Kristallnacht, the nationwide attacks on Jewish homes, business, and synagogues. The Taliban’s religious police, for their part, were clearing women from Kabul’s streets and beating them up for failing to wear head-to-toe chadors, a violation of Sharia law. Months later, the Taliban turned Kabul soccer stadium into an execution ground, shooting untold numbers of men and women in the heads or stoning them to death for petty crimes and adultery. And despite international protests, they later destroyed colossal Buddhist statues carved into a mountain, considering them idolatrous and offensive to Islam.
This is what the Taliban was. Not surprisingly, Albright’s talking points failed to persuade it to clean up its act regarding bin Laden and the terror camps. Albright was flummoxed. And so she ratcheted up the diplomatic pressure by enlisting the help of a formidable ally: the Europe Union. In a secret cable dated March 27, 1998, Albright contacted U.S. embassies in the European Union – and in her “action message” directed U.S. envoys to invite E.U. states to join Washington in condemning the Taliban; she hoped the diplomatic pile on would persuade the Taliban to close its terror camps and withdraw support for Osama bin Laden. The cable’s subject line: “Approach to EU on Taleban support for Usama bin Laden” (“Taleban” is an alternative spelling to the more commonly used “Taliban”).
The U.S. is concerned by the so-called fatwa recently issued by terrorist patron Usama bin Laden that calls on all Muslims to kill Americans. We have raised this issue with the Taleban both in Kabul and in New York. We are confident that EU member states share this concern. We believe that there is merit in the Taleban realizing that this concern is not limited to the U.S.
Albright warned: “The Taleban must share responsibility for Usama bin Laden’s terrorist actions and inflammatory statements as long as he remains a guest in Qandahar.” (Qandahar is the Persian spelling of “Kandahar,” the more commonly seen Pashto version.)
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