WASHINGTON - The central justification of the United States-North Atlantic
Treaty Organization war against the Afghan Taliban - that the Taliban would
allow al-Qaeda to return to Afghanistan - has been challenged by new historical
evidence of offers by the Taliban leadership to reconcile with the Hamid Karzai
government after the fall of the Taliban government in late 2001.
The evidence of the Taliban peace initiatives comes from a new paper drawn from
the first book-length study of Taliban- al-Qaeda
relations thus far, as well as an account in another recent study on the
Taliban in Kandahar province by journalist Anand Gopal.
In a paper published on Monday by the Center on International Cooperation at
New York University, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn recount the
decision by the Taliban leadership in 2002 to offer political reconciliation
with the US-backed Afghan administration.
Citing an unidentified former Taliban official who participated in the
decision, they report that the entire senior Taliban political leadership met
in Pakistan in November 2002 to consider an offer of reconciliation with the
new Afghan government in which they would "join the political process" in
"We discussed whether to join the political process in Afghanistan or not and
we took a decision that, yes, we should go and join the process," the former
Taliban leader told the co-authors.
They cite an interlocutor who was then in contact with the Taliban leadership
as recalling that they would have returned to Afghanistan to participate in the
political system if they had been given an assurance they would not be
But the Karzai government and the United States refused to offer such an
assurance, the interlocutor recalled. They considered the Taliban a "spent
force", he told Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn.
Gopal, who has covered Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor and the
Wall Street Journal, provided a similar account of the Taliban attempt to
reconcile with the Karzai government in a lengthy study published by the New
America Foundation last November, based on his interviews with present and
former Taliban as well as with officials in the office of President Karzai.
The entire senior Taliban leadership, meeting in Karachi, "agreed in principle
to find a way for them to return to Afghanistan and abandon the fight", Gopal
wrote, but the initiative was frustrated by the unwillingness of the United
States and the Afghan government to provide any assurance that they would not
arrested and detained.
The Taliban continued to pursue the possibility of reconciliation in subsequent
years, with apparent interest on the part of the Karzai government, according
to Gopal. Delegations "representing large sections of the Taliban leadership"
traveled to Kabul in both 2003 and 2004 to meet with senior government
officials, according to his account.
But the George W Bush administration remained uninterested in offering
assurances of security to the Taliban.
Robert Grenier, then the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) station chief in
Islamabad, revealed in an article in al-Jazeera on January 31, 2010, that
former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil had been serving as an
intermediary with the Taliban on their possible return to Afghanistan in 2002
when he was "arrested and imprisoned for his pains".
The CIA sought to persuade the US Defense Department to release Muttawakil,
according to Grenier. But Muttawakil remained in detention at Bagram air base,
where he was physically abused, until October 2003.
The new evidence undermines the US administration's claim that Taliban-ruled
areas of Afghanistan would become a "sanctuary" for al-Qaeda.
Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn suggest that the proposed reintegration of the
Taliban into a political system that had been set up by the United States and
its allies was "totally alien to al-Qaeda ideology but logical for the
They acknowledge that the Taliban have welcomed the support and assistance of
al-Qaeda cadres in the war. But they argue in the new paper that the
relationship is a "marriage of convenience" imposed by the foreign military
presence, not an expression of an ideological alliance.
They also cite evidence that the Taliban leadership recognize that they will
have to provide guarantees that a Taliban-influenced regime in Afghanistan
would not allow al-Qaeda to have a sanctuary.
They note in particular a Taliban public statement released before the London
Conference of January 2010 that pledged, "We will not allow our soil to be used
against any other country."
An earlier Taliban statement, distributed to news media on December 4, 2009,
said the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" - the term used by the insurgent
leadership to refer to the organization - had "no agenda of meddling in the
internal affairs of other countries and is ready to give legal guarantees if
foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan".
Independent specialists on the history of the relationship have long questioned
that assumption, and have emphasized that the Taliban leadership was never very
close to al-Qaeda.
Leah Farrell, senior counter-terrorism intelligence analyst with the Australian
Federal Police from 2002 to 2008, wrote in her blog that the relationship "is
not a marriage, it's friends with benefits". Farrell has also said that jihadi
accounts of the late 1990s have shown that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was
not that close to Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar before the 9/11 attacks.
The new paper, based on both Taliban and jihadi documents and from interviews
with Taliban and former Taliban officials, points to basic differences of
ideology and interest between the Taliban and al-Qaeda throughout the history
of their relations.
Relations between Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders during the second half of the
1990s were "complicated and often tense", according to Strick von Linschoten
and Kuehn, even though they were both Sunni Muslims and shared a common enemy.
They recall that Bin Laden's plotting against the United States was done in
direct violation of Mullah Omar's directives to him.
An e-mail from two leading Arab jihadis in Afghanistan to Bin Laden in July
1999, which Wall Street Journal reporter Alan Cullison later found in a laptop
that had once belonged to al-Qaeda, referred to a "crisis" in relations between
Bin Laden and Mullah Omar that threatened the future of al-Qaeda-sponsored
training camps in Afghanistan. The message expressed fear that the Taliban
regime might "kick them out" of Afghanistan.
Mullah Omar nevertheless regarded Bin Laden as an "important connector" to the
Muslim world, according to Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn. And the Taliban
leadership faction that was pushing hard to force Bin Laden out of the country
was weakened by the death of its leading figure, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, in
Contrary to the suggestion that the Taliban were complicit with the September
11, 2001, attacks, however, Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn assert that Mullah
Omar and other leaders refused to hand over Bin Laden to the US mainly because
of the fear of losing the few allies they had in the Muslim world.
They suggest that a primary reason for the Taliban decision not to give into US
pressure on Bin Laden both before and after 9/11 was to maintain the support of
Pakistan, which was encouraging them to hold out against those pressures.
Other published sources have confirmed that, even in October 2001, Pakistani
intelligence officials were advising the Taliban to avoid handing over Bin
Laden, in the hope that the Taliban-al Qaeda resistance to the US-led military
offensive would continue.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.