Face to Face With the Taliban

Karl F. Inderfurth served as the assistant secretary of State for South Asian Affairs from 1997 to 2001

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President Bush said we will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them. The Taliban of Afghanistan should not have been surprised by this statement. They were similarly warned by the U.S. government more than two years ago.

The meeting took place Feb. 3, 1999, at the U.S. ambassador's residence in Islamabad. As the assistant secretary of State for South Asian Affairs, I was instructed to deliver a message about Osama bin Laden and terrorism to a high-ranking official of the Taliban movement. I was accompanied by the State Department's coordinator for counter-terrorism, Michael Sheehan. Mullah Abdul Jalil, a close associate of the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, and a possible liaison with Bin Laden, traveled to Pakistan to meet with us.

The bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania nearly six months earlier had made it horrifyingly clear that Afghanistan-based terrorism was a direct threat to the United States. We were outraged that after all the support the United States had given the Afghan resistance during its struggle against the Soviet Union, the terrorists tied to the bombings, including Bin Laden, were trained and based in Afghanistan.

The U.S. government had repeatedly demanded that the Taliban stop giving safe haven to terrorists. It had also appealed to nations, like Pakistan, that have influence in Kabul. But the situation did not change.

The message I delivered at the February meeting went further than any previous one issued by the U.S. government. Arriving late in the evening from Kandahar, Afghanistan, Mullah Jalil was accompanied by the Taliban's representative in Islamabad. Along with Sheehan, I stressed that the Taliban needed to expel Bin Laden to a location where he could be brought to justice. I emphasized that it was vitally important for the Taliban to act, because the American government believed that Bin Laden was still plotting acts of terrorism against the U.S.--and that we would hold the Taliban responsible for his actions. The message could not have been clearer.

Speaking softly through his interpreter, and frequently stroking his beard, Mullah Jalil responded. He began with a prayer, then proceeded to argue that the Taliban's actions conformed to their interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. He said Bin Laden was an honored guest of the Taliban for the role he had played in the jihad, or holy war, during the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. Mullah Jalil acknowledged that Bin Laden was increasingly a burden on Afghanistan, but the Afghani tradition of hospitality did not permit them to force Bin Laden to leave. Mullah Jalil assured us, however, that Bin Laden was under the Taliban's control and that he could not possibly be operating a worldwide terrorist network as we had suggested. Finally, he demanded that we show him the evidence against Bin Laden and that then the Taliban would act according to Islamic law. Sheehan did, citing chapter and verse from the indictment of Bin Laden for his role in the East Africa embassy bombings.

Later efforts were made to provide the Taliban with more information about the U.S. case against Bin Laden, but they never responded. The nearly three-hour session with Mullah Jalil produced no meeting of the minds. Subsequently, the United Nations Security Council tried to persuade the Taliban to turn over Bin Laden. Two resolutions were adopted, in October 1999 and December 2000, and sanctions were imposed on the Taliban to accomplish that purpose. Again, the Taliban defied these calls by the international community.

Meanwhile, the Taliban, and some of their supporters, tried to misrepresent our campaign against Bin Laden and terrorism as an attack against Islam. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The United States does not oppose Islam. The United States respects Islam. But we oppose those who commit or condone criminal acts, especially those who commit and inflict grievous injury against civilians in the name of any ideology, religion or cause.

Today, the Taliban and their leader, Mullah Omar, are facing another hour of truth. Let us hope they will change their mind promptly and turn over Bin Laden to appropriate authorities in a country where he can be brought to justice and close down the terrorist training facilities in Afghanistan. If they do not, the United States will respond. The Taliban have been warned.

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