U.S. government documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and recently posted on the website of the George Washington University National Security Archive shed some additional light on talks with the Taliban prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, including with regard to the repeated Taliban offers to hand over Osama bin Laden, and the role of Pakistan before and after the attacks.
One of the recently released State Department documents, from March 2000, notes that a proposed “gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Multan, Pakistan figured prominently in discussions” about the mutual goal between the U.S. and regional players of stabilizing Afghanistan. Discussions on another proposed pipeline from Iran to India via Pakistan had also been proposed that were “more advanced”, and the Pakistanis had gone to Tehran to meet with Iranian officials “to pursue these negotiations”. But neither “pipeline is likely to go forward in the mid-term”, the documented concluded.
A Pakistani official told the U.S. that “Pakistan ‘will always support the Taliban’”. This “policy cannot change, he continued; it would prompt rebellion across the Northwest Frontier Provinces, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and indeed on both sides of the Pashtun-dominated Pak-Afghan border.” But the Taliban were “‘looking for a way out’ of the problem with bin Laden”. The U.S. was urged to “find a way to compromise with the Taliban”, and possible “ways that the U.S. and the Taliban might use to break the impasse” were suggested, including “the possibility of a trial in a third (Muslim) country”, “U.S. assurances that bin Laden would not face the death penalty”, and “a U.S. outline of what the Taliban would gain from extradition of bin Laden”.
It is already known that the U.S. had demanded in secret discussions with the Taliban that bin Laden be handed over for more than three years prior to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The talks continued “until just days before” the attacks, according to a Washington Post report the month following the attacks. But a compromise solution such as the above that would offer the Taliban a face-saving way out of the impasse was never seriously considered. Instead, “State Department officials refused to soften their demand that bin Laden face trial in the U.S. justice system.”
Officials described the U.S. decision to reject Taliban offers as a missed opportunity. Former CIA station chief Milt Bearden told the Post, “We never heard what they were trying to say…. We had no common language. Ours was, ‘Give up bin Laden.’ They were saying, ‘Do something to help us give him up.’” Bearden added, “I have no doubts they wanted to get rid of him. He was a pain in the neck,” but this “never clicked” with U.S. officials.
Michael Malinowski, a State Department official involved in the talks, acknowledged, “I would say, ‘Hey, give up bin Laden,’ and they would say, ‘No…. Show us the evidence’”, a request U.S. officials deemed unreasonable.
According to the BBC, the Taliban later even warned the U.S. that bin Laden was going to launch an attack on American soil. Former Taliban foreign minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil said his warnings, issued because of concerns that the U.S. would react by waging war against Afghanistan, had been ignored. A U.S. official did not deny that such warnings were issued, but told BBC rather that it was dismissed because “We were hearing a lot of that kind of stuff”.
Indeed, underscoring Muttawakil’s stated reasons for having delivered the threat warning to the U.S., a State Department document from June 2001 obtained by INTELWIRE.com showed that the U.S. had warned the Taliban “that they will be held directly responsible for any loss of life that occurs from terrorist actions related to terrorists who have trained in Afghanistan or use Afghanistan as a base of planning operations.” The Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef responded that “the Taliban do not see Americans as their enemies and that there are no threats to Americans coming from the Taliban. Nontheless, said Zaeef, ‘We will do our best to follow up and stop’ any threat.” With regard to bin Laden, “Zaeef emphasized that the Taliban’s relationship with UBL [Usama/Osama bin Laden] and others is based not on enmity against the United States, but on ‘culture.’”
Rejecting the Taliban offers to have bin Laden handed over, the U.S. instead pursued a policy of regime change well prior to the 9/11 attacks. Jane’s Information Group reported in March 2001 that “India is believed to have joined Russia, the USA and Iran in a concerted front against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime”, which included support for Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, including “information and logistic support” from Washington. Former Pakistani Foreign Secretary Niaz Naik told the BBC that he had been told by senior U.S. officials in July 2001 at a U.N.-sponsored summit in Berlin that military action would be taken against the Taliban by the middle of October. Preparations had already been coordinated with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia. Naik also “said it was doubtful that Washington would drop its plan even if Bin Laden were to be surrendered immediately by the Taleban.”
A newly released document dated August 30, 2001 shows that Pakistan was continuing to urge the U.S. “to maintain open channels to the Taliban.” Pakistani officials denied that their support for the Taliban included military assistance. When asked “why Pakistan supports the Taliban”, an official replied, “We don’t support but inter-act with the Taliban”. Pressed further on why Pakistan continued “to give the Taliban international diplomatic support and to press the USG [United States Government] to engage with the Taliban?” the Pakistanis “reiterated that the Taliban are the effective rulers of at least 90 percent of Afghanistan, that they enjoy significant popular support because they ended the banditry and anarchy that once bedeviled the country, and that the instant success of the opium poppy production ban underscored … the reality and effectiveness of Taliban authority.” If it wasn’t for “external support” for the Northern Alliance, it “would collapse in a matter of days.”
Another newly disclosed document shows that two days after the 9/11 attacks Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf was told “bluntly” that “There was no inclination in Washington to engage in a dialog with the Taliban.” The U.S. was already prepared for military action and “believed strongly that the Taliban are harboring the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks.” The U.S. was “fairly sure” that bin Laden “and his Al Qida network of terrorists” were guilty.
The following day, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage issued an ultimatum to Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt. Gen. Mahmud Ahmed that Pakistan’s cooperation was expected “should the evidence strongly implicate Usama bin-Laden and the Al Qaida network in Afghanistan and should Afghanistan and the Taliban continue to harbor him and this network”.
Mahmud conveyed the message to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and reported back to Armitage that “the ‘response was not negative on all these points’.” The Taliban was to convene a grand council to discuss the U.S.’s terms. Mahmud said he had “framed the decision to Mullah Omar and the other Afghans as essentially choosing between one man and his safe haven versus the well-being of 25 million citizens of Afghanistan” and that they were “now engaged in ‘deep introspection’ about their decisions.”
The BBC reported on the Pakistani talks with the Taliban, noting that the Taliban were “demanding proof of his involvement in the terror attacks on the US” before they would consider handing over Osama bin Laden, who issued a statement saying, “The US is pointing the finger at me but I categorically state that I have not done this”. CNN similarly reported that the Taliban was “refusing to hand over bin Laden without proof or evidence that he was involved” in the 9/11 attacks. Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef said “that deporting him without proof would amount to an ‘insult to Islam.’” But, he added, “We are ready to cooperate if we are shown evidence.” U.S. officials said evidence gathered linking bin Laden to other terrorist attacks were all the proof that was needed, but declined to provide evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks.
A document from September 23 notes that Mahmud planned to meet with the Taliban a second time, and that he emphasized to the U.S. that “A negotiated solution would be preferable to military action”, but was told that “his trip could not delay military planning” and that “The time for negotiation was past.” In his further meeting, Mahmud would ask Omar to “surrender Usama Bin Laden and his Al Qaida lieutenants”, and reiterated Pakistan’s pledge of support for the U.S. effort, but replied by saying, “I implore you not to act in anger. Real victory will come in negotiations…. Reasoning with them to get rid of terrorism will be better than the use of brute force. If the strategic objective is Al Quaida [sic] and UBL, it is better for the Afghans to do it. We could avoid the fallout.” Overthrowing the Taliban regime would “leave a dangerous political vacuum” and Afghanistan would “revert to warlordism”, Mahmud warned. He further cautioned that “a strike will produce thousands of frustrated young Muslim men. It will be an incubator of anger that will explode two or three years from now.” The U.S. dismissed these concerns, which were subsequently proven to have been prescient.
Secretary of State Colin Powell at the same time told Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press, “I am absolutely convinced that the al Qaeda network, which he heads, was responsible for this attack.” When asked whether the government would “release publicly a white paper which links him and his organization to this attack”, Powell replied, “We are hard at work bringing all the information together, intelligence information, law enforcement information. And I think in the near future we will be able to put out a paper, a document that will describe quite clearly the evidence that we have linking him to this attack.” The promised white paper was never delivered.
The U.S. war against Afghanistan commenced on October 7, and the Taliban again repeated offers to negotiate handing over bin Laden. Taliban deputy prime minister Haji Abdul Kabir announced that “If the Taliban is given evidence that Osama bin Laden is involved” and the U.S. stopped its bombing, “we would be ready to hand him over to a third country”. President George W. Bush rejected the offer as “non-negotiable”, adding, “There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty.” Refusing to provide evidence of bin Laden’s guilt, Bush reiterated the U.S. ultimatum: “If they want us to stop our military operations, they’ve just got to meet my conditions. When I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations.”
The Taliban then dropped their demand for evidence and repeated their offer to turn bin Laden over to a third country. The London Guardian reported that Taliban minister Muttawakil met with officials from the CIA and ISI to propose the offer, which was once again dismissed by U.S. officials. Taliban spokesman Amir Khan Muttaqi said at the end of October, “We do not want to fight…. We will negotiate. But talk to us like a sovereign country. We are not a province of the United States, to be issued orders to. We have asked for proof of Osama’s involvement, but they have refused. Why?” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher responded by falsely claiming, “All one has to do is watch television to find Osama bin Laden claiming responsibility for the September 11 bombings.”
In fact, as already noted, bin Laden had in denied any involvement in the attacks. On September 16, bin Laden issued a statement saying: “Following the latest explosions in the United States, some Americans are pointing the finger at me, but I deny that because I have not done it…. Reiterating once again, I say that I have not done it….” He added that the Taliban had forbidden terrorist attacks from being “carried out from Afghanistan’s territory”, and that this message had been delivered to him personally from Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
Again on September 28, in an interview with the Karachi daily Ummat, bin Laden denied involvement: “I have already said that I am not involved in the 11 September attacks in the United States. As a Muslim, I try my best to avoid telling a lie. Neither I had any knowledge of these attacks nor I consider the killing of innocent women, children, and other humans as an appreciable act. Islam strictly forbids causing harm to innocent women, children, and other people…. Whoever committed the act of 11 September are not the friends of the American people. I have already said that we are against the American system, not against its people, whereas in these attacks, the common American people have been killed.”
He went on to suggest that the attacks were an inside job: “Then there are intelligence agencies in the US, which require billions of dollars worth of funds from the Congress and the government every year. This [funding issue] was not a big problem till the existence of the former Soviet Union but after that the budget of these agencies has been in danger. They needed an enemy. So, they first started propaganda against Usama and Taliban and then this incident happened…. What is this? Is it not that there exists a government within the government in the United States? That secret government must be asked as to who made the attacks.”
Bin Laden was correct in his observation that U.S. policymakers perceived the need for an external enemy in order to pursue their policy goals. Without such a threat, the goal of many after the end of the Cold War not only to maintain U.S. military expenditures, but to effect a “transformation” of the military into a force for U.S. global hegemony, could not be realized. The neoconservative think tank The Project for a New American Century (PNAC), acknowledged this in its September 2000 manifesto “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century”, which argued the case for maintaining U.S. preeminence and global hegemony, and to “extend the current Pax Americana” through a buildup of the military. But this “process of transformation” was “likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event—like a new Pearl Harbor.”
This assessment echoed that of Andrew Krepinevich, Executive Director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities on March 5, 1999. After stating that “There appears to be a general agreement concerning the need to transform the U.S. military into a significantly different kind of force from that which emerged victorious from the Cold and Gulf Wars,” he noted that “this verbal support has not been translated into a defense program supporting transformation.” He stated further that “While there is growing support in Congress for transformation the ‘critical mass’ needed to affect it has not yet been achieved.” In conclusion, he said, “in the absence of a strong external shock to the United States—a latter-day ‘Pearl Harbor’ of sorts—surmounting the barriers to transformation will likely prove a long, arduous process.”
While the U.S. never produced the white paper it promised that was to present the evidence against bin Laden in making its case for war, the British government did present a paper Tony Blair insisted demonstrated his guilt. Yet “Downing Street acknowledged that the 21-page dossier did not amount to a prosecutable case against bin Laden in a court of law.” Harder evidence, the document claimed, was “too sensitive to release.”
To this day, the attacks of 9/11 are not listed as being among the crimes for which Osama bin Laden is wanted by the FBI, because there is not enough evidence against him to bring an indictment against him in a court of law.
The threshold of evidence required for waging a war is apparently much lower than that to issue an indictment in a court of law. As a direct consequence of the war, Afghanistan once again became far and away the world’s leading producer of opium and heroin; it indeed returned to a state of warlordism, chaos, and violence, just as the U.S. had been warned; many more Afghan civilians have been killed than Americans who died on 9/11, and Osama bin Laden was never captured.
 “‘No-Go’ Tribal Areas Became Basis for Afghan Insurgency Documents Show”, George Washington University National Security Archive, September 13, 2010 <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB325/index.htm>.
 “Turkmenistan and Pakistan Predict War, Even While ‘Working for Peace,’ in Afghanistan, and Continue to Support Taliban”, U.S. State Department, March 13, 2000 <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB325/doc01.pdf>.
 David B. Ottaway and Joe Stephens, “Diplomats Met With Taliban on Bin Laden”, Washington Post, October 29, 2001; Page A01 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn?pagename=article&contentId=A3483-2001Oct28¬Found=true>.
 Kate Clark, “Taleban ‘warned US of huge attack’”, BBC News, September 7, 2002 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/2242594.stm>.
 J.M. Berger, “U.S. Had ‘High Confidence’ Of UBL Attack in June 2001″, INTELWIRE.com, November 7, 2008 <http://intelwire.egoplex.com/2008_11_07_exclusives.html>.
 “Terrorism: Demarche on Threat by Afghan-Based Terrorists”, U.S. State Department, June 27, 2001 <http://intelfiles.egoplex.com/2001-06-27-DOS-taliban-obl-meeting.pdf>.
 “Terrorism: Demarche on Threat by Afghan-Based Terrorists”, U.S. State Department, June 29, 2001 <http://intelfiles.egoplex.com/2001-06-29-DOS-taliban-obl-meeting.pdf>.
 Rahul Bedi, “India joins anti-Taliban coalition”, Jane’s Information Group, March 15, 2001.
 George Arney, “US ‘planned attack on Taleban’”, BBC News, September 18, 2001 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1550366.stm>.
 “STAFFDEL focuses on Afghanistan at MFA”, U.S. State Department, August 30, 2001 <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB325/doc03.pdf>.
 “Musharraf [EXCISED]“, U.S. State Department, September 13, 2001 <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB325/doc03.pdf>
 “Deputy Secretary Armitage’s Meeting with General Mahmud: Actions and Support Expected of Pakistan in Fight Against Terrorism”, U.S. State Department, September 13, 2001 <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB325/doc05.pdf>
 “Deputy Secretary Armitage-Mahmoud Phone Call”, U.S. State Department, September 18, 2001 <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB325/doc07.pdf>.
 “Taleban to decide Bin Laden fate”, BBC News, September 17, 2001 <http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1547076.stm>. See also Rupert Cornwell and Andrew Grice, “Taliban are given an ultimatum: hand over bin Laden or face attack”, The Independent, September 17, 2001 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/taliban-are-given-an-ultimatum-hand-over-bin-laden-or-face-attack-751974.html>.
 “White House warns Taliban: ‘We will defeat you’”, CNN, September 21, 2001 <http://archives.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/asiapcf/central/09/21/ret.afghan.taliban/>. See also Luke Harding and Rory McCarthy, “Bush rejects Bin Laden deal”, The Guardian, September 21, 2001 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/sep/21/afghanistan.september1111>.
 “Mahmud Plans 2nd Mission to Afghanistan”, U.S. State Department, September 24, 2001 <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB325/doc08.pdf>.
 Transcript of NBC’s ‘Meet the Press’ With Tim Russert, September 23, 2001 <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/nation/specials/attacked/transcripts/nbctext092301.html>.
 “Bush rejects Taliban offer to hand Bin Laden over”, The Guardian, October 14, 2001 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/oct/14/afghanistan.terrorism5>. See also Andrew Buncombe, “Bush rejects Taliban offer to surrender bin Laden”, The Independent, October 15, 2001 <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/bush-rejects-taliban-offer-to-surrender-bin-laden-631436.html>.
 Larry D. Hatfield, “Intense daylight bombing raids / Bush rejects new Taliban offer to send bin Laden to 3rd country”, San Francisco Chronicle, October 15, 2001 <http://articles.sfgate.com/2001-10-15/news/17621096_1_taliban-laden-bin>.
 Rory McCarthy, “New offer on Bin Laden”, The Guardian, October 17, 2001 <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2001/oct/17/afghanistan.terrorism11>.
 Kathy Gannon, “Official: Taliban Willing to Talk”, Associated Press, November 1, 2001.
 “Afghanistan: Bin Laden Denies Involvement in Terrorist Attacks in US”, Peshawar Afghan Islamic Press News Agency, September 16, 2001; from “Compilation of Usama Bin Laden Statements, 1994 – January 2004″, Foreign Broadcast Information Service, January 2004 <http://www.fas.org/irp/world/para/ubl-fbis.pdf>. See also “Bin Laden says he wasn’t behind attacks”, CNN, September 17, 2001 <http://archives.cnn.com/2001/US/09/16/inv.binladen.denial/>.
 “‘Exclusive’ Interview With Usama Bin Ladin on 11 Sep Attacks in US”, Ummat, September 28, 2001; from the FBIS compliation.
 “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century”, Project for a New American Century, September 2000 <http://www.newamericancentury.org/RebuildingAmericasDefenses.pdf>.
 Testimony of Andrew Krepinevich, Executive Director, before the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats and Capabilities, Marcy 5, 1999 <http://www.csbaonline.org/4Publications/Archive/T.19990305.Emerging_Threats,_/T.19990305.Emerging_Threats,_.htm>.
 George Jones, “Blair presents the ‘proof’ that bin Laden is guilty”, The Telegraph, October 5, 2001 <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1358499/Blair-presents-the-proof-that-bin-Laden-is-guilty.html>
 “FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitive: Usama Bin Laden”, Federal Bureau of Investigation, accessed September 20, 2001 <http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/topten/fugitives/laden.htm>. “No Hard Evidence Connecting Bin Laden to 9/11″, ProjectCensored.org, accessed September 20, 2001 <http://www.projectcensored.org/top-stories/articles/16-no-hard-evidence-connecting-bin-laden-to-9-11/>.
Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent political analyst whose articles have been featured in numerous print and online publications around the world. He is the founder and executive editor of Foreign Policy Journal (www.foreignpolicyjournal.com), an online source for news, critical analysis, and opinion commentary on U.S. foreign policy. He was a recipient of the 2010 Project Censored Awards for Outstanding Investigative Journalism and can also be found on the web atwww.jeremyrhammond.com.