From the archives: Bush wants Bin Laden ‘Dead or Alive’

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

With President Bush declaring that he wants Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” the supreme leader of Afghanistan’s Taliban regime on Monday put the fate of the suspected terrorist mastermind--and the country--in the hands of the nation’s Islamic clerics.

Mullah Mohammed Omar asked a panel of clerics to decide whether to hand over Bin Laden after Omar received a blunt warning from his main ally, neighboring Pakistan, about the dangers facing Afghanistan.

Lt. Gen. Mahmood Ahmed, chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, met with Omar in his stronghold, the southern city of Kandahar, and told him that he faced an urgent choice: Surrender Bin Laden or suffer massive attacks by U.S. forces, said a senior Pakistani diplomat. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the extreme sensitivity of the talks.


Photos: Osama bin Laden is dead

Despite comments from a Pakistani official over the weekend that the Taliban had 72 hours to turn over Bin Laden, U.S. and Pakistani officials said there was no deadline. The United States is still in the planning stages of diplomatic and military action, officials said.

However, Bush and other U.S. officials made it clear that they are in no mood for compromise with the Taliban.

Meanwhile, Taliban leaders urged Afghans to prepare for a jihad, or holy war, against the United States, government media reported today.

Taliban leaders are sending a message to their people: “Stay united and prepare for jihad against U.S. invaders,” the reports said.

For three years, the Taliban has been under extreme international pressure to hand over Bin Laden, the suspected terrorist leader who has been indicted in the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. But it was unclear whether Omar would now back down or whether the clerics council would give in to demands for Bin Laden’s arrest.


Nevertheless, Monday’s events suggested a scenario similar to one in which the Taliban has said it could hand over Bin Laden. Ever since Bin Laden became a suspect in the embassy bombings, Taliban officials have said the United States should put its evidence before a Muslim court and that if the evidence proved strong enough, he would be handed over. Washington has consistently rejected that option.

The Pakistani pressure, and Omar’s subsequent decision, came a day after Omar made a rare radio broadcast to his people, saying he was prepared to die and urging them to get ready for war. His decision to convene the Islamic council could be his way of avoiding sole responsibility for handing over Bin Laden, or it could be a way of sharing the blame if the Taliban refuses and finds itself under U.S. attack.

It was unclear how quickly the Islamic council would make its decision.

By making Ahmed the bearer of bad tidings, Pakistan sent an unmistakable sign to the Taliban that its very existence is on the line. Ahmed’s words carry enormous weight because Pakistani military intelligence helped form, arm and, at times, command the Taliban as it went from obscurity in 1994 to seizing Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, two years later.

The Pentagon is drawing up war plans aimed at not merely punishing the Taliban but destroying the hard-line Islamic regime altogether, Pakistan’s military intelligence chief told Omar.

Ahmed’s delegation gave Omar a briefing on evidence gathered by U.S. intelligence and FBI investigators that implicates Bin Laden and outlined the costs of not cooperating, the Pakistani source said.

Several hours later, Taliban radio announced that Omar had called on Muslim clerics from throughout Afghanistan to convene in Kabul for a rare meeting of the religious council, known as a shura.

The Pakistani delegation flew to Kabul late Monday and hopes to observe the meeting. Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the prospects for peace until the delegation returns from Kabul.

U.S. officials said they were not prepared to accept anything less than having Bin Laden handed over to the United States, even if the Taliban offered a compromise. And Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the U.S. goal is to destroy Bin Laden’s organization.

“I want justice,” Bush told reporters during a visit to the Pentagon. “There’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’

“We’re going to find those evildoers, those barbaric people who attacked our country,” Bush said. “And we’re going to hold them accountable, and we’re going to hold the people who house them accountable. The people who think they can provide them safe havens will be held accountable. The people who feed them will be held accountable.

“And the Taliban,” he said, “must take my statement seriously.”

Top Foreign Officials to Visit Washington

Meanwhile, the State Department increased Washington’s diplomatic efforts Monday, announcing visits this week by key leaders from Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

They include British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and Germany.

Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri will arrive for a previously planned visit.

Other visitors, including the emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani, will visit the United States in coming weeks as part of U.S. efforts to build a global coalition against terrorism.

Powell said there had been indications of willingness to cooperate from unlikely quarters, including Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic on Afghanistan’s northern border, and Sudan, where Bin Laden was based before he moved to Afghanistan in 1996.

Among the likely options the Bush administration is considering is placing Army special operations ground forces in Afghanistan, two defense officials familiar with the plans told The Times on Monday.

“We’re talking about rooting people out of holes, and that means boots on the ground, there’s no way around it. It’s not going to be cruise missiles,” one of the defense officials said.

The official emphasized, however, that no decisions had been made.

The two officials said the military’s initial strike may not come immediately because intelligence specialists need time to determine where the terrorists are. One official said extra intelligence satellites are already being concentrated on areas where the terrorists are believed to have operatives.

“They will be repositioning overhead systems,” the official said. “That has already been decided.”

A twist of fate gave a significant boost to Washington’s effort to split the Taliban and Pakistan.

On the day terrorists flew passenger jets into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Ahmed, the Pakistani spy chief, was in Washington on an official visit. Afghanistan was at the top of the agenda.

Ahmed couldn’t return home after the attacks because U.S. airspace was closed. So officials from the White House, the CIA and the State Department briefed him on details of the investigation as it unfolded, a Pakistani government source said.

The expanding case against Bin Laden involves “thousands and thousands of leads and information” gathered by U.S. intelligence and the FBI, said the Pakistani source. The source has seen some of the evidence, which has helped persuade Islamabad to turn against its ally.

“But it is not for us to judge whether he’s guilty or not,” said the source. “It is up to the Taliban to look at the authenticity of the evidence and decide for themselves--quickly.

“More important to us,” the official added, “is to save Afghanistan from complete destruction.”

Further chaos in Afghanistan, which has been battered by decades of war, would likely destabilize Pakistan, where millions of Afghan refugees live. Many Pakistanis also sympathize with the Taliban and are deeply anti-American.

Pakistan Wants Aid, End to U.S. Sanctions

Powell said it would be another day or two before an inter-agency U.S. government team would be formed to be sent to Pakistan as a liaison, a possible prelude to military action.

But there have been some signs of U.S. military movement in Pakistan. On Thursday, two U.S. military aircraft unloaded equipment at the Chaklala military airport on the outskirts of Islamabad and then left, according to an airport worker who reported seeing the landing.

A senior government official confirmed that Pakistan’s airspace was closed for two hours Thursday morning but said that was because of a false report that an Israeli warplane was approaching. Pakistan claimed to have closed its border with Afghanistan to people and trade in any goods except food; however, there was a steady stream of trucks crossing through the Khyber Pass on Monday on the main highway toward Kabul.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf expects support from Washington in return for delivering what amounts to an ultimatum to the Taliban. The Taliban has threatened to attack Pakistan if it aids the U.S. in strikes against Afghanistan.

Musharraf’s government faces a sharp backlash from the many supporters of Bin Laden and the Taliban in Pakistan. He also is fighting to rescue Pakistan’s economy from a crushing debt of more than $32 billion.

The country of about 140 million people also wants an end to sanctions Washington imposed on both Pakistan and India after each of the countries conducted nuclear weapons tests in May 1998.

Before last week’s terrorist attacks, Washington was hinting that it would soon lift the sanctions on India but keep them on Pakistan until Musharraf, who seized power in a 1999 coup, did more to restore democracy.

That strategy was also part of a planned shift away from once deliberately equal treatment for India and Pakistan to an open tilt toward India. But the hunt for Bin Laden has once again made Pakistan a key to U.S. policy in South Asia, as it was throughout the Cold War.

In addition to asking for more economic aid and an end to sanctions, Musharraf is likely to press for U.S. help in resolving Pakistan’s dispute with India over the Himalayan territory of Kashmir.

Photos: Osama bin Laden is dead

Watson reported from Islamabad and Wright from Washington. Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Esther Schrader in Washington, John Daniszewski in Islamabad and special correspondent Syed Talat Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.