A few days after Barack Obama’s December 2009 announcement of 33,000 more troops being sent to Afghanistan, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert Gates advanced the official justification for escalation: the Afghan Taliban would not abandon its ties with al-Qaeda unless forced to do so by US military force and the realization that “they’re likely to lose.”
Gates claimed to see an “unholy alliance” of the Afghan Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Pakistani Taliban emerging during 2009. Unless the United States succeeded in weakening the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would have safe haven in Afghanistan, just as they had before the 9/11 attacks, according to Gates.
Even in comparison with the usual lies that justify wars, this one was a whopper. Gates was deliberately ignoring the serious political split that had become apparent in 2008 between Mullah Omar, the spiritual and political leader of the Taliban, and the leadership of al-Qaeda over fundamental issues of strategy and ideology.
After the July 2007 Pakistani military assault on the militants occupying the Red Mosque in Islamabad, al-Qaeda had openly backed Pakistani militants in their declaration of war against the Pakistani military and the Pervez Musharraf regime. Omar, who needed Pakistani support against the US-NATO forces, began urging Pakistani militants to shun violence against the Pakistani security apparatus, but the newly established militant organization Tehrik-e-Taliban paid no attention to him, as recounted by the recently murdered Pakistani journalist Sayed Saleem Shahzad in a book published just days before his death.
Shahzad’s book reveals, In fact, that one of al-Qaeda’s aims in setting up the new organization was to try to draw Afghan Taliban away from Omar’s influence. Soon after that al-Qaeda move, he sent a trusted adviser, Tayyeb Agha, to a meeting in Saudi Arabia with a delegation of Afghan parliamentarians convened by Saudi King Abdullah in September 2008. That meeting alarmed al-Qaeda leaders, who did not want any move toward peace in Afghanistan, according to Shahzad’s account based on many interviews with al-Qaeda strategists over the past several years.
The ideological-strategic conflict between Omar and al-Qaeda was well known within US intelligence and counterterrorism circles. Two days after Gates made his argument about the Taliban and al-Qaeda, in an interview with me, Arturo Munoz, who had been supervising operations officer at the CIA’s Counter-Terrorism Center from 2001 to 2009 and had extensive experience in Afghanistan, referred to the differences between the Taliban and al-Qaeda over al-Qaeda’s war against the Pakistani military. “The Taliban is a homespun Pashtun locally-based revolutionary movement with a set of goals that are not necessarily those of al-Qaeda,” said Munoz.
In fact, Omar himself had issued a message on September 19, 2009, which had explicitly characterized the Taliban as a “nationalist movement” – an obvious rebuff to the al-Qaeda position that nationalism is the enemy of the global jihad, as jihadist scholar Vahid Brown pointed out at the time.
Plumping Up the War Rationale
The Obama administration has relied heavily, of course, on the widespread impression that the Taliban regime was somehow mixed up with Osama bin Laden’s plotting the 9/11 attacks. But as opposition to the war has mounted, Bruce Riedel, the former CIA official and National Security Council staffer brought in by Obama to lead the administration’s policy review of Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, has sought to reinforce that message.
In his new book, “Deadly Embrace,” Riedel refers to “the remarkable alliance, even friendship,” between Omar and Bin Laden, which “seems to have remained intact to this day.” In a remarkable passage about the period from Bin Laden’s arrival in Afghanistan in 1996 to the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, Riedel writes:
The Taliban promised Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to “control” their “guest,” but he continued to issue statements and no real effort was made to rein him in. Bin Laden moved to Kandahar to be close to Mullah Omar, proclaimed his loyalty to the “commander of the faithful” (Omar’s self-proclaimed title) and married one of Omar’s daughters to further cement their bond.
Riedel goes on to suggest that Omar became an enthusiastic convert to Bin Laden’s global jihadist cause. “Omar found in Osama and al-Qaeda,” he writes, “an ideology that transcended Afghanistan, played to his ego and validated his role as commander of the faithful.”
The problem with this dramatic portrayal of a close relationship between Omar and Bin Laden, however, is that every single assertion in it is demonstrably false. Riedel’s version of the relationship could not be any further from the actual record of interactions between the two men during Bin Laden’s stay in Afghanistan, available from multiple primary sources.
Brown, a research fellow at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center, reported last year that the memoirs of one of Bin Laden’s close collaborators in Afghanistan, the Egyptian jihadist known as Abu’l-Walid al-Masri, had provided new insights into the relationship between Bin Laden and Omar. Al-Masri recalled that Omar had informed Bin Laden from the beginning of his stay that he was forbidden from issuing statements to the media without the prior consent of the Taliban regime and from doing anything to directly antagonize the United States.
Bin Laden repeatedly violated the injunction against speaking to news media in 1996 and 1997 and Omar reacted strongly to his defiance. In “The Looming Tower,” Lawrence Wright recounts the story told by Bin Laden’s personal guard Khalid al-Hammadi of what happened after Bin Laden gave an interview to CNN in March 1997. Omar ordered Bin Laden brought by helicopter from Jalalabad to Kandahar airport for a meeting, according to the guard’s account. There, Omar told Bin Laden that he was being moved immediately to Kandahar, citing as the reason a plot by tribal mercenaries to kidnap him. The real reason for the move, of course, was to exercise tighter control over his guest. The order to move was accompanied by a sharp warning to Bin Laden: the contacts with the foreign press had to stop.
Nevertheless, Bin Laden defied Omar a second time. In late May 1998, he arranged to meet with Pakistani journalists and with another US television crew – this time from ABC – in Jalalabad. He declared in those interviews that his aim was to expel US forces and even “Jews and Christians” from the Arabian Peninsula.
An enraged Omar personally called Rahimullah Yusufzai, one of the Pakistani journalists who had reported on the meeting with Bin Laden in Jalalabad and said, “There is only one ruler. Is it me or Osama?” according to Yusufzai. Yusufzai, who has met and interviewed Omar on ten occasions over the years and also knew Bin Laden, says the relationship between the two men was “very tense” and “never cordial.”
In June 1998, Omar told Prince Turki al Faisal, the head of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency, that he was willing to expel Bin Laden, but he wanted a joint committee of Islamic scholars to issue a fatwa that would absolve him of his responsibility to protect his Muslim guest, according to Turki’s account to journalist Steve Coll. A month later, a Taliban envoy was sent to Saudi Arabia to reaffirm the deal.
What appears to have turned Omar against the planned expulsion of Bin Laden was the US cruise missile strikes against Bin Laden’s training camps in Afghanistan in retaliation for the August 1998 bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. When Prince Turki returned to see Omar less than a month after the US missile attack, Omar’s attitude had “changed 180 degrees.”
Omar gave the Saudi intelligence chief no explanation for his change of heart. But he was more forthcoming with the Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI), Ziauddin Butt, who met him a few weeks after the missile attacks. The Taliban leader complained that Bin Laden was “like a bone stuck in my throat. I can’t swallow it, nor can I get it out!” The problem, he explained, was that Bin Laden had become such a hero in the eyes of the Taliban rank and file – apparently because of the US missile strikes against his training camps – that “My people will lynch me if I hand him over.”
Although reluctant at first to get rid of the troublesome Bin Laden, Omar agreed to the Pakistani’s suggestion that Bin Laden be tried for the embassy bombings by judges from four Islamic countries, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as the ISI chief later told historian Shuja Nawaz, author of “Crossed Swords.”
In 1999, the Taliban regime actually ordered the closure of several training camps being used by al-Qaeda’s Arab recruits, according to jihadist sources cited by Brown. And an email from two leading Arab jihadists in Afghanistan to Bin Laden in July 1999, found on a laptop that had once belonged to al-Qaeda and later purchased by a strange quirk of fate by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, referred to “problems between you and the Leader of the Faithful” as a “crisis.” The email even suggested that the Taliban regime might go so far as to “kick them out” of Afghanistan.
Bin Laden’s Phony Pledge of Allegiance
The real story of Bin Laden’s pledge of loyalty to Omar, which Riedel touts as evidence of their chumminess, shows that it was exactly the opposite of that. According to Egyptian jihadist al-Masri’s account, reported in detail by Brown, relations between Bin Laden and Omar became so tense after the Embassy bombings that some in Bin Laden’s entourage urged him to consider an oath of allegiance (bay’a) to Omar simply to avoid a complete rupture between the two.
But Bin Laden resisted the idea, according to al-Masri, initially arguing that such a pledge of allegiance could only be undertaken by Afghans. And after agreeing, on al-Masri’s urging, to give Omar such a pledge in person in late November 1998, Bin Laden failed to show up for the meeting. Al-Masri told Bin Laden that his no-show would confirm Omar’s impression of him as arrogant and full of himself. Nevertheless, in the end, Bin Laden refused to go to Omar himself to give his pledge, sending al-Masri instead, evidently because he wanted to be able to deny later on that he had personally sworn allegiance to Omar. Al-Masri concluded that the whole exercise was an “outright deception” by Bin Laden of a man with whom he was fundamentally at odds.
Riedel’s claim that Bin Laden married one of Omar’s daughters would certainly represent evidence of a bond between the two men, if true. Unfortunately for the point man for Obama’s policy review, it is another easily provable lie. A recent report on the wives who survived the killing of Bin Laden shows that three of Bin Laden’s five wives were Saudis, one was Syrian and one was Yemeni. None were of Afghan descent.
Riedel cites a 2005 book, Revolution Unending: Afghanistan, 1979 to the Present by French specialist on Afghanistan Gilles Dorronsoro. But Dorronsoro told this writer he realized after the book was published that the story was not true and that it may have well been circulated deliberately by Omar’s enemies in the Northern Alliance to discredit him.
Riedel tops off his grotesquely distorted description of Omar’s relationship with Bin Laden by suggesting that the Taliban leader knew that an al-Qaeda attack on the US homeland was coming, citing Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf as the source. But Musharraf says nothing of the sort. He affirms in memoirs what al-Qaeda insider Fazul Abdullah Muhmmad has written in his own memoirs – that Bin Laden kept the plan secret even from his closest al-Qaeda collaborators, except for Mohammed and Abu Hafs al-Masri, until the end of August 2001. Musharraf merely passes on speculation by unnamed intelligence sources that Omar may have guessed that something big against the United States was in the works.
What Riedel fails to inform his readers is that the main planner of the 9/11 operation, Khalid Shaykh Muhammad, told his interrogators that Bin Laden had complained to his intimates late that summer about Omar’s unwillingness to allow any attack on the United States – thus implying very clearly that he could not be brought into their confidence, according to the 9/11 Commission Report.
This writer sent an email to Riedel asking why he had ignored the sources cited in this article, which provide a very different view of the Omar-Bin Laden relationship from the one he describes in his book. “Because the facts were to the contrary,” he responded. “The Taliban did nothing to rein in AQ but they were eager to have their apologists paint a happy picture.”
When I asked him in a second email if he was saying that al-Masri, Bin Laden’s personal guard and all the other sources who have since provided a different picture were “apologists” for Omar, Riedel did not respond.
Riedel probably never bothered to consult these sources. Someone so deeply imbedded in the interests of powerful institutions has no incentive to look beyond the superficial and distorted reading of the evidence that clearly serves those interests. His disinterest in finding facts that would get in the way of the necessary official rationale for war provides a perfect illustration of the way lying to the public is inherent in the nature of national security policymaking.
The story of the lies that took the Obama administration into a bigger war in Afghanistan shows that those lies have structural, systemic roots. The political dynamics surrounding the making of war policies are so completely dominated by the vested interests of the heads of the Pentagon, the military, and other national security bureaucracies that the outcome of the process must be based on a systematic body of lies. Only by depriving those institutions of their power can Americans have a military policy based on the truth.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. 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.