I have already commented on the article by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair in Counterpunch on the negotiations for the capture of Osama bin Laden between the U.S. government and the government of Afghanistan. The source for the story was Kabir Mohabbat, an Afghan American who acted as translator and go-between. Back in late 2006 one of Mr. Mohabbat’s coworkers found my article and sent it to him. As a result, he contacted me by email, saying, “I have not told my whole story.” I was in Houston on other business in early 2007 so I visited him and interviewed him for this piece.
Various diplomats and former intelligence operatives have differed as to the seriousness of Taliban offers. Some thought that the Taliban were stalling. Others thought that the U.S. government was missing opportunities due to cultural ignorance; that is, the Taliban kept dropping broad hints that seemed obvious to them, but blew over our heads.
I briefly interviewed William Milam, who was our ambassador to Pakistan at the time of these events. He called Kabir Mohabbat “a charlatan” and said that the Taliban were never serious about handing over Osama bin Laden. Other U.S. government officials have had opinions somewhere in between Mohabbat and Milam. Herein lies the problem.
I can see how this would be a Rashomon kind of event, with different parties interpreting the same facts in markedly different ways and coming up with different narratives. The Afghan/American cultural divide is large. I can see U.S. government personnel (and specifically Bush administration officials) finding it in their interest to downplay the significance of these negotiations. I can also see Mr. Mohabbat being motivated to enlarge his own role and capabilities, as well as overestimating the possible success of these negotiations. That is why, in the end, I am labeling this “One Man’s Story.” I originally wrote it in the spring of 2007, abandoned it for a few years, and just rewrote it in light of bin Laden’s death.
Kabir Mohabbat was an Afghan-born American citizen. At the time of his death he was living in southern Texas and working at Fort Polk, Louisiana, training soldiers who were about to be sent to Afghanistan. His family belongs to the Jaji clan, traditionally the kingmakers of Afghanistan, and the clan of the last king. The Mohabbat family is known as the “American Afghans,” having traveled back and forth between the two countries for fifty years. Mr. Mohabbat studied political science in the U.S. and graduated from college the day that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Mr. Mohabbat returned to Afghanistan and became a member of the mujihadeen fighting the Soviets in the 1980’s. He returned to the U.S. in 1989 after the Soviets were driven out. Mr. Mohabbat retained his close ties to family, clan, and high-level political connections back in Afghanistan, as well as his contacts in the State Department and U.S. intelligence circles. With a foot in both worlds, he was a unique back-channel link between the U.S. and Afghanistan. When I interviewed him he was employed by the U.S. military as a consultant on Afghan language, culture, and politics. Kabir Mohabbat died in mid-July of 2007.
The First Offer
During the summer of 1998, Mohabbat was in Afghanistan at the request of Afghan Ambassador Faizi. The ambassador wanted Mohabbat’s help in restarting talks with Unocal, a U.S. oil company, on a contract to build an oil pipeline across Afghanistan. Faizi also wanted to improve relations with the United States, which were strained after the Taliban (a conservative Moslem religious faction) took over the government. On August 7th, 1998, followers of Osama bin Laden bombed the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks killed 257 people and wounded thousands. By August 20th, President Clinton had fired dozens of cruise missiles into Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Mohabbat started to receive calls from tribal leaders and government officials in Afghanistan, all wondering why their old ally was attacking them. He explained to them that Osama bin Laden’s presence was the reason for the attacks. Many of them offered to go after bin Laden themselves in order to appease their anti-Soviet ally. Mohabbat called Lee Coldren, then in charge of South Asian affairs at the State Department, and met with him and Roberta Chew, another State Department employee. They discussed the offer and said they would get back to him, but never did.
The Second Offer
In the first half of 1999, Mohabbat was in Afghanistan, meeting with Afghan government officials and trying to set up the stalled pipeline deal with his own investors. In the second week of June he traveled to Islamabad, Pakistan, and met at the U.S. embassy with the Deputy Chief of Mission, John Schmidt. Schmidt relayed a message for the Taliban, “straight from the President’s mouth.” If anything happened to Americans or American interests, Mullah Omar (leader of the Taliban/Afghan government) would be held responsible and the U.S. would bomb Afghanistan.
In October 1999, Mohabbat was back in Afghanistan for more pipeline contract negotiations. While travelling to an oilfield, Mohabbat and the head of the Afghan Oil Ministry had their car stopped by a party of armed men. It took a call to the Ministry of Defense to get them released. They later found out that they had strayed near the camp of Osama bin Laden and that the gunmen were his followers. The mullahs apologized and quietly confessed that they had no use for bin Laden but that they didn’t know how to get rid of him.
In mid-October, 1999, Mohabbat talked to the mullahs about the U.S. threat of bombing and told them to take it seriously. The mullahs’ reply was that they were always thankful for U.S. support against the Soviets. They wanted to assure the U.S. that they would hold Osama responsible for any acts of terrorism and that they didn’t want him. He was already in the country when they took power and was imposed on them. They had offered to send him to Egypt, Jordan, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but nobody wanted him. Every country was afraid of retaliation if it held him.
Mohabbat asked, “Can I have him?”
The reply was instant: “Dead or alive?”
Mohabbat immediately flew back to Washington D.C. and contacted an old acquaintance, Phyllis Oakley, then Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research. He said, “I have Osama bin Laden on a silver platter. How would you like him, rare, medium, or well done?” Oakley was “amazed and delighted” and invited Mohabbat to her home to meet her husband, retired Ambassador Robert Oakley, and retell the story. She told him that she would send Michael Sheehan, the State Department Coordinator for Counter-terrorism, down to work out the details with him. After waiting a while, Mohabbat called her office and found that Oakley had abruptly retired three weeks after their meeting. Mohabbat called her at home. She was obviously angry about the situation and told him that she couldn’t help him anymore. Michael Sheehan never appeared.
Note on Phyllis Oakley: Her resignation came not long after the U.S. bombing of a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, suspected of being a chemical weapons factory by the Clinton administration. Oakley wrote a report after the fact that disputed the accuracy of the intelligence that prompted the bombing. The report was suppressed and she resigned soon afterwards.
The Third Offer
Mohabbat returned to his pipeline negotiations with the Taliban. By May of 2000 he had finalized the contracts, but U.S. sanctions on Afghanistan came into effect, making it illegal for him to deal with the mullahs. On his return to the U.S., he was stopped and questioned at Newark International Airport. He explained to the officials about his connections to the Taliban and their willingness to hand over bin Laden. The officials sent him on his way and said that someone would contact him.
When he returned home he was contacted by an FBI agent (“Mario”) and a CIA operative (“Joe”). They worked together over the next few months to try to finalize a deal between the U.S. and the Taliban over the fate of bin Laden. This included a preliminary meeting in Frankfurt, Germany between Taliban representatives and officials of the European Union.
On October 12th, 2000, bin Laden’s followers bombed the U.S.S. Cole in a harbor in Yemen. Mohabbat happened to be in D.C. and was summoned to the State Department. He met with Jeffrey Lunstead, the South Asia Bureau Coordinator for Afghanistan. Lunstead said, “Kabir, we are ready to bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone Age unless the Taliban unconditionally hand Osama bin Laden over to us.” Mohabbat asked for 3-4 weeks, saying, “I am begging you and President Clinton to give me a chance.” Lunstead said that the president had only authorized him to give Mohabbat two weeks. Mohabbat flew immediately to Kandahar.
Mohabbat met with Taliban leaders and told them that the U.S. delegation would meet them in Frankfurt. He told them that unless they came to the negotiating table, the U.S. would bomb Afghanistan and that would be the end of them.
The key meeting in Frankfurt occurred on November 2nd and 3rd, 2000, in a Sheraton hotel suite. Present at this meeting were:
- Alan Eastham, State Dept. Deputy Assistant Secretary for South Asian Affairs
- Jeffrey Lunstead, State Dept. South Asia Bureau Coordinator for Afghanistan
- Frank (Urbancic?), State Dept. Deputy Director of Counter-terrorism
- Gary Schroen, CIA Deputy Chief, Near East Division, Directorate of Operations
- A CIA operative who Mohabbat would not name due to ongoing covert status.
- Taliban representatives who Mohabbat would not name because of present risk of assassination.
- An Afghan national who Mohabbat would not name because of present risk of assassination.
- Kabir Mohabbat, acting as translator and mediator.
Here’s the relevant section of the transcript of my interview with Kabir Mohabbat:
“So, when we got to the meeting, the Taliban representatives asked Eastham ‘What is the evidence?” Frank, the Director of Counter-terrorism, pulled out a New York Times article, and he said ‘Look, this is what we’ve got on him.’ The mullahs laughed. They said, ‘We could fix newspapers for you like that. But we thought Mr. Mohabbat said that you have documents.’ So that day was the worst day ever of my negotiations, November 2nd. And that meeting collapsed.
I knew that the American delegation was looking for bombing, so I spent almost the whole night with the Taliban. I convinced them that these people, whatever they’re doing, they want to bomb, but let’s do something that won’t give them an excuse. I finally convinced them, that, let’s try to give Osama. Do we need him? They said ‘no’, but [the Americans] said they had evidence. It was a newspaper article. It is immoral, it is unethical. There should be some kind of laws, or some kind of procedures. So, the Taliban [representative] at that point offered, that if [the Americans] could get some relatives of people that died in Kenya, in Nairobi, just a simple complaint with Taliban courts, he said within three days he will be hanging off a tree, if they could provide us three witnesses.
Just to get something legal, Islamic, because they were very good Muslims. Just give us three. And Alan Eastham said, ‘We don’t have three,’ and the Taliban said ‘You mean to tell me the most powerful nation on earth can’t provide me with three witnesses?’ They said ‘No. We want Osama now.’ And the Taliban looked at him and said ‘You want Osama?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ He said ‘When?’ That’s the 3rd of November. ‘We have no use for him.’ And it was so amazing to me that I asked the American delegation, I said, ‘Excuse me I have to ask him again what he said before I translate.’ Of course, this room, which was a big suite, it was already [equipped with] cameras, it was audio, everything was there, They were audio and video taping this, and that’s what they told me, directly to the president of the United States, at this meeting. So, they were listening to it at Camp David.”
“And, when the Taliban said – Oh, Alan Eastham, the head of the delegation, said to the Taliban, ‘We thank you for bringing security to Afghanistan. Afghanistan, right now you have made it like a beautiful highway. One big piece of rock is lying in the middle of the highway. All we have to do is get rid of this piece of rock, and we will do whatever we can for you.’ And the Taliban said, ‘What if this piece of stone is too heavy for us? Would you help us lift it?’ ‘Yes.’ And that’s when we agreed that as soon as possible, hand him over. And that’s when they appointed Ambassador William Milam, Islamabad, and CIA station chief, (initials deleted), that they would work out the details in Islamabad, Pakistan, and the bombings stopped, completely. They said, “No, there will be no bombing.” So we all hugged each other, they all shook hands, and thanked each other, and had a nice lunch.”
“We went our ways and I took them to the American embassy in Islamabad, met with the ambassador and the station chief, and also at that meeting was present Paula Tate who was a counselor to the embassy, an advisor on Afghanistan affairs. She was present, and she couldn’t believe this either. The Taliban were saying ‘When will you do something about it?’”
The agreement reached on November 3rd was that the Taliban would escort a group of U.S. commandos to within striking distance of bin Laden and then look the other way for an hour or so. The Taliban were enthusiastic about this approach because it relieved them of public responsibility for his death.
Eighteen days later, on November 21st, 2000, President Clinton signed a presidential order appointing Kabir Mohabbat as his personal secret envoy to the Taliban for the express purpose of negotiating the extradition or killing of Osama bin Laden.
The Election, Delays, and a Warning
A few weeks after George Bush took office, he signed a presidential order that was essentially a duplicate of the one Clinton had signed, appointing Kabir Mohabbat as his presidential representative to the Taliban for negotiating the extradition or death of bin Laden.
The situation in early March of 2001 was that Osama bin Laden and 200 of his highest-level followers were confined in a compound in Darunta, about 120 kilometers from Kabul. The agreement that the Taliban reached with the U.S. was that the Taliban would give the U.S. the coordinates of the compound and the U.S. would fire a few cruise missiles, killing bin Laden and essentially decapitating the power structure of al Qaeda.
Another excerpt from the interview transcript, where KM explains how that had come about:
“So when the election was to President Bush’s advantage, of course I was very understanding that he wasn’t ready, so I brought the Taliban back to the US embassy in Islamabad. Then William Milam apologized, said that we have a new administration. We won’t be able to do anything. Let’s meet in March and we’ll be completely ready to send cruise (missiles). And the Taliban understood. And they came back in March of 2001. To my surprise I was told by the White House that we are ready to bomb. When I got to the American embassy in Islamabad ….
Heretic: Ready to bomb who?
Kabir Mohabbat: Osama…Osama.
H: Ready to drop the cruise missile.
KM: Right. When I got to the embassy, William Milam, American ambassador, when I brought the Taliban into the embassy, it is something, it is really worth mentioning, that the first meeting that was held with the ambassador, it was at his residence, and the ambassador said, “Let’s move the meeting to my office at the embassy, because last time the Pakistani intelligence overheard us.” So I almost blew up. I said, “Don’t you think that Osama knows?” They said, “We hope not.” So we moved the meeting from his residence.
H: Because the ISI [Pakistani Intelligence] was all connected into…
KM: Right. They heard everything. And we moved to his office and when we got there, to our surprise, the Ambassador told me, and I quote, “I don’t know who the fuck elected this man as the president of the United States. But your Excellency, I am here to apologize to you, we are not ready. We need at least four more weeks.”
(Note: In a later conversation, Mohabbat emphasized that Milam was getting his orders directly from the White House.)
H: This was March…
KM: March 21st. American embassy, Islamabad, Pakistan. Which is all….you know, every time you enter the American embassy, you register.
KM: So it’s all registered. So I’m saying, maybe a day back and forth, but it’s registered. The mullahs and me.
H: Yeah. These are the unnamed mullahs. We can’t name them.
KM: No we can’t.
KM: Yes. But there are enough documents, the logbook is there. So the mullahs were surprised, and said, because there was an international sanction on them travelling. He [the mullah leading the Taliban delegation] was on the top of the list. He said he was a very important person, as they knew. He sneaked into Pakistan as a thief in the night. How could you do something like this? Then why don't you come to Kandahar next time? You are my guest. I’m not going to sneak into Pakistan. What about if I get caught? Or there will be a big ugly death in my family. There will be nobody left of me. This is very dangerous. So the American Ambassador William Milam apologized with the CIA station chief participating, and said we need four more weeks. And I asked the Taliban to please agree. They need more time. And we were supposed to meet in April, towards the end of April. So when I came back to the U.S. the meeting was being delayed and delayed and delayed, and in May of 2001 the Taliban called me from Kandahar and said, I quote, ‘Mr. Mohabbat, something so big is gonna happen,’ middle of May, that I called my contact immediately in Houston….
H: Contact at the U.S…
KM:…Contact in Houston to meet with me immediately. And I told him the severity of the phone call I had. And I taped the conversation and I handed it over to my contact in Houston. And [initials deleted]
H: Do you have a copy of that tape still?
KM: No, the FBI has it. The copy is with the FBI. I did not take any copies. But I have some tapes, yes.
H: So how specific was the guy from Kandahar on the phone with you?
KM: Just like that, “A big thing.” So he [Mohabbat’s FBI contact] said, “Let me call…” it was Sunday when this happened, he said, “I’ll get you an answer tomorrow.”
H: Now, again, the guy from Kandahar, did he specify that this was something that Osama was going to do?
KM: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Osama was gonna do it. It was so big.
H: Something really big.
KM: And he said, ‘We don’t know what’ …. So he [Mohabbat’s FBI contact] got in touch with the White House, and they were procrastinating again. So in the middle of June, it was so bad, that whenever I got a call from Kandahar, I said [to the FBI contact], ‘For God’s sake, do something.’ Then I told the administration and my contacts with national security, that I am personally going to go and take care of this business. Something is going to happen. In return, they told me, if I touch Osama, I’ll be prosecuted, because that will be against U.S. law. I am a federal employee and I cannot take things into my own hands. So then I said I am going to resign, and go, anyway.
So I think I scared enough people they told me to bring the Taliban back to meet with Ambassador Milam. We are ready to bomb [Osama]. So that’s in June of 2001 when Mr. Tenant claims to know. Those are my words and they have a tape of it. They have a tape of the Taliban saying that something so big is gonna happen. That was where it came from. In June, 30th of June, Taliban had met with the American ambassador again. William Milam was so angry with the Bush administration that he refused to sit in the meeting with Taliban, where he was pushed aside. So that’s when the CIA station chief took over. And at that meeting was another lady, counselor to the American embassy, Angie Bryan. So when US ambassador and CIA station chief said, “Your Excellency, we are really sorry, we need four more weeks.” And the Taliban, the second way he offered, he said, ‘Why don’t we do this, people blow up in bombs in Afghanistan all the time. What about if Osama blows up?’ And I asked the Taliban, ‘Please, repeat, your Excellency, what you said.’ I wanted to make sure, because every time we attended meetings, they were video and audio taped. So be very clear and I won’t mistranslate this. When I told this, to bomb, the ambassador, they were shocked. They said ‘Sir, give us four more weeks, and we’ll do it together.’ So there was a second way to get Osama.
Taliban said directly to the CIA chief, they said, ‘Something so big will happen that neither you nor I will be able to repair, and you will blame us for it.’ And CIA station chief replied, and I quote, ‘Your Excellency, as long as we have you, nothing will happen because you will prevent it’ He [The Taliban representative] said ‘I can’t. We don’t know what it is. But we are hearing them talking about something big. Even though they are under house arrest, there is some way they are communicating.’ And Ambassador William Milam walked out of that meeting being angry.”
September 11th, and the Aftermath
On September 3rd, 2001, Mohabbat returned to Afghanistan. On September 11th he was in Kabul. He spent the night watching television and translating the reports for the mullahs of the Taliban. At this point they were frantic to get rid of bin Laden. Mohabbat arranged one more meeting between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives on September 16th, 2001, in Cuetta, Pakistan. Mohabbat fed the story of this meeting to Allen Pizzey of CBS in an attempt to move the process forward and avoid a U.S. attack. CBS broadcast the story, but nothing came of it.
Mohabbat’s account of the meeting:
KM: His name was Akhtar Mohammed Usmani. He was the commander of Kandahar Corps and deputy of Mullah Omar. He told the CIA station chief, “We’ve been waiting for you for nine months. I’m asking you for three days. Let me go back to Kandahar to do something about Osama.” And the station chief told him, “I’m really sorry, your Excellency, I have my orders, I want him now, today.” And Usmani told him, “You never wanted Osama. You won’t even let me go to Kandahar. I’m asking you for three days. You had nine months to do something.”
H: Now what date is this meeting?
KM: This is September 16 of 2001. That’s reported. So, and, the CIA station chief told him, “I’m sorry sir.” And I jumped in the conversation and told CIA station chief, I said, “You used me in the middle, didn’t you. Now I’m going to be considered a non-desirable person in the U.S., dead by Osama, and god knows what the Taliban are going to think about me from now on. I said, “This is something very immoral. You shouldn’t have done this to me. I served you with honesty. I would spend my own money. I almost died, well, a few times. Going back and forth to Afghanistan is not easy.” And he told me, “I’m really sorry Kabir. You did a wonderful job. But there is a big light at the end of the tunnel for you.” Which I refused to take, or ever see that light.
H: So, you knew that he meant the presidency?
KM: Yes sir.
H: How did you know?
KM: Because he told me blunt…bluntly. He said, “Stay, you are in charge of one dollar to one billion dollar, that’s right here at the embassy. You can spend it any way you want. Get people behind you and rally them behind you. We need you.” I said, “Find yourself another sucker.” I’m not dumb. Look at Afghan history. You don’t bring an outsider as a puppet. People don’t accept. Don’t matter who….I offered, I offered, I’ll go on my own. Without U.S. military help. And they said no. I said, “Let me go on my own, then.”
“So, damn it, you’re taking me back all the way you know. So that’s when they sent me again and swore to me that they were ready. It was November 3 of 2001 (Note: I think he meant an earlier date, perhaps October 3), after that, and they said we are ready to do it. When I got to the embassy, the CIA station chief, with a sad face, told me, “Kabir, I don’t know what’s going on. All we want you to do is go one more time and apologize.” And I said, “You bunch of idiots. Are you trying to have me killed, going back and forth to Afghanistan? And everybody knows in Afghanistan, in Kabul, in Kandahar, the man without a beard, with a tie, in a western suit, what the hell is he doing?” [Mohabbat looks and dresses like a conventional American businessman] I said, “I’m gonna get killed before we kill him.” He said “One more time.” And sure enough, I went and apologized, and the Taliban gave me the message again, and told the Americans, we did whatever we could, you are only procrastinating, and you don’t want this man, we don’t want to be blamed for it. And I brought this message back to the U.S. embassy and to people in Washington.”
In a later conversation, Mohabbat quoted Ambassador Milam as saying to the Taliban representative, “Your Excellency, everything you say is being heard in Camp David.” Apparently the videotaping had a direct real time link to the President.
I should note that Kabir Mohabbat survived two assassination attempts during his travels in Afghanistan. The first, in February of 2001, was a bomb detonated at his hotel in Kabul. It caused damage, but no injuries. The second, in June of 2001, was a grenade thrown into his hotel room. Thankfully, it failed to detonate.
After months of fruitless negotiations over bin Laden, the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan on October 7, 2001. The Taliban kept Osama bin Laden and his followers in custody until November of 2001, when they were forced out of Afghanistan. Once we removed his jailers, bin Laden escaped into the mountains.
The Final Offer
In the year after September 11th, Kabir Mohabbat suffered a heart attack. His finances were depleted from all the travelling, and for a while he drove a cab in Houston. Eventually, with the ongoing war in Afghanistan, his language skills and knowledge of Afghan culture became useful to the U.S. government. He obtained a job at Fort Polk, Louisiana, where soldiers are trained before being sent over to Afghanistan.
In August of 2006 he went on a one-year assignment to Afghanistan as a consultant to U.S. forces there. Nineteen days into his assignment he met with a group of high-ranking intelligence officers. They discussed the Taliban, and Mohabbat repeated the offer to kill Osama bin Laden. He still had connections with the Taliban, and it could be arranged. The officers were very excited about this prospect and said that they would put it into operation immediately. The next day Mohabbat was relaxing with his extended family and got a call from the U.S. embassy. He was to come there immediately. When he arrived, his supervisor was waiting for him with an embarrassed look on his face. “Kabir,” he said, “you are our best guy. We really need you…” Mohabbat cut him off. “I am supposed to return home, right?” Mohabbat was told to take a helicopter to Bagram Air Base and immediately get on a flight back to the States. Mohabbat refused the helicopter; “I was afraid they might push me out the door.” He had a family member drive him to Bagram, where two KBR (a Halliburton subsidiary) security officers met him and escorted him to the plane. Twenty-four hours later he was back home. No explanation was ever given for his sudden recall to the U.S.
Even with this rejection, the story wasn’t over. From our interview:
KM: Exactly. So I refused, and I was punished, even up to now. But my offer is still open. And I hope there should be an investigation, Congressional investigation into this.
H: So, you’re saying to me, right here, right now…
KM: Right here, right now…
H: You could deliver…
KM:…Deliver Osama now.
H: Through mullah, um….
KM: Through mullah…Ok, when I mentioned mullah Usmani’s name, the sad thing is, he got killed about a month ago, by U.S. forces, with a cruise (missile). The same cruise he was asking me to hit Osama with. How come that cruise never hit Osama but it hit him? That is where my fear is. That Osama’s people have helped U.S. government to hit mullah Usmani, about five weeks ago. Because there is one member of Taliban which I always suspected him. He is running the show in Kandahar. His name is mullah Dadullah. He is the one very close to Osama. And he was a very, he was competing with mullah Usmani. Right now, according to my sources, the mullah Omar has condemned mullah Dadullah to death. Even though…
H: For killing Usmani?
KM: For killing Usmani.
H: Do you think that Dadullah gave the…
KM: U.S. forces. That’s a fact. That’s a fact. Dadullah betrayed Usmani. But that’s sad, to kill, one of my own. One of the American’s best allies, who would have loved to come back to the negotiation table. So…
H: So, they have the capability of delivering up Osama?
(Note: Dadullah was killed with a missile strike in May 2007)
In a conversation with Mohabbat, he mentioned that he was on the TSA watch list, which means that he was stopped at airports. He was returning from Dubai in early 2007 and, per usual, was stopped at immigration for questioning. He answered their questions and reiterated his offer to arrange the death of bin Laden. The officials hurriedly sent him on his way. Mohabbat also noted that another pro-western member of the Taliban had recently been captured. He expressed his concern that mullah Dadullah and other pro-Osama types were still betraying and eliminating their rivals, thus isolating the Taliban leader, mullah Omar. The Taliban ability to make good on the offer was slipping away.
I should note that I was ready to publish this piece in the May of 2007, but Mr. Mohabbat asked me to delay it because he still had some negotiations going on. There was a period of silence and then he contacted me to tell me he had been in the hospital for emergency surgery on a blood clot. Then more silence, and in a web search I found an online memorial to him by one of his family members.
This story gives an interesting perspective internal Taliban politics. It’s not completely surprising to find that they are not monolithic, but then that is never true for any political or religious movement. There were purists and there were pragmatists – an old story. Remember that the Talibs were part of a fighting force that received our support during their war against the Soviets during the eighties. A number of the former anti-Soviet mujihadeen, Kabir Mohabbat included, were dedicated Reaganites.
Although they allowed bin Laden to stay in Afghanistan, one faction of the Taliban, represented by Mullah Usmani (and perhaps Mullah Omar) would have been pleased to be rid of him. Their public posture was at odds with their private wishes. Osama bin Laden’s presence was an obstacle to diplomatic and trade relations, but he had street cred, and they couldn’t be seen capitulating to the West.
An article in the Sentinel (The publication of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point) analyzes the writings of an Egyptian-born jihadi named Abu’l-Walid al-Masri. Masri was heavily involved in al Qaeda throughout the 90s and then realigned himself with the Afghan Taliban. He writes of the ongoing conflicts between the Taliban and al Qaeda and his relatively unsuccessful attempts to resolve them. He states that in the late 90s the Taliban hosted bin Laden and his organization on the condition that bin Laden did not antagonize the U.S. Masri describes a rocky relationship between the two groups, with al Zawahiri of al Qaeda describing the Taliban’s nationalism as “Satanic,” and the Taliban isolating bin Laden and restricting his movement. The main event in the Sentinel article is the attempt by Masri to have bin Laden pledge his allegiance to Mullah Omar, and the eventual failure of this effort. Bin Laden had Masri, then not even an official member of al Qaeda, go to Omar and pledge for him, allowing bin Laden plausible deniability in either direction.
Another faction of the Taliban, represented by Mullah Dadullah, was hard line for bin Laden. They had no intention of compromising with the west, even given the political and economic costs.
I have written previously about the death of Mullah Dadullah and the possibility that Mullah Omar used the U.S. military as his unwitting assassins.
Why didn’t the Bush administration pull the trigger? Was Osama bin Laden more valuable to them alive than dead? Without him, there would have been no credible excuse to invade Afghanistan, the non-Russian route out for Central Asian oil and natural gas and the strategic base between Iran and China. Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Stephen Cambone, Zalmay Khalilzad, and a number of other Bush administration insiders were all members of the Project for the New American Century, a think tank which had advocated such an invasion as far back as 1998.
Or was it Taliban intransigence? It appears that the power struggles within the Taliban, their extremely legalistic religiosity, and their need for the appearance of anti-western solidarity combined to make the pathway to bin Laden’s capture or death an extremely narrow and crooked one. Was it too narrow and too crooked for U.S. diplomats to navigate?
Wherever the blame lies, what I see is an opportunity lost. If I had been a member of our national security team back in the years around 2000, I would have looked at this channel to capturing Osama bin Laden as a first priority. The Taliban, however medieval in their social and political outlook, had a cadre of pragmatists. I believe that enough carrot combined with enough stick could have extracted bin Laden from their custody before 9/11, and if not before that, then before our invasion. Either way, thousands of lives and billions of dollars would have been saved.
There is another loose end, a very loose end, and this intrigues me. The compound in Darunta where bin Laden was confined in 2001 was built by the CIA in the 1980’s during the anti-Soviet war. Why did the U.S. government need Taliban cooperation at all once that location was identified? The U.S. had detailed coordinates and satellite imagery for the site. If the Bush administration was intent on killing bin Laden, how difficult would it have been for the U.S. military to destroy that site, and Osama bin Laden, in the spring of 2001?
Here’s a repetition of my prior caveat: This is mostly one man’s story, and a disputed story. Participants disagree with each other on what was said and done, and what was meant by what was said. It would make me happy if someone with more time and resources than your Minor Heretic pursued the myriad leads of this story and made better sense of it.