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Helms has little regard for Osama bin Laden, whom she sneeringly refers to as a "tractor driver." She says he was inherited by the Taliban and is widely viewed as a "hang nail."
In 1999, Helms says, she got a message from the Taliban leadership that they were willing to turn over all of bin Laden's communications equipment, which they had seized, to the U.S. When she called the State Department with this offer, officials were at first interested, but later said, "No. We want him."
In the same year, Prince Turki, head of Saudi intelligence, reputedly came up with a scheme to capture bin Laden on his own; after consulting with the Taliban he flew his private plane to Kabul and drove out to see Mullah Omar at his HQ. The two men sat down, as Helms recounts the story, and the Saudi said, "There's just one little thing. Will you kill bin Laden before you put him on the plane?" Mullah Omar called for a bucket of cold water. As the Saudi delegation fidgeted, he took off his turban, splashed water on his head, and then washed his hands before sitting back down. "You know why I asked for the cold water?" he asked Turki. "What you just said made my blood boil."
Bin Laden was a guest of the Afghanis and there was no way they were going to kill him, though they might turn him over for a trial. At that the deal collapsed, and Turki flew home empty-handed.
Early this year, the Taliban's ambassador at large, Hashami, a young man speaking perfect English, met with CIA operations people and State Department reps, Helms says. At this final meeting, she says, Hashami proposed that the Taliban hold bin Laden in one location long enough for the U.S. to locate and destroy him. The U.S. refused, says Helms, who claims she was the go-between in this deal between the supreme leader and the feds.
A U.S. government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, made clear that the U.S. is not trying to kill bin Laden but instead wants him expelled from Afghanistan so he can be brought to justice. Acknowledging that Laili Helms does a lot of lobbying on behalf of the Taliban, this source said Helms does not speak to the Taliban for the U.S.
In the realpolitik of Bush foreign policy, the Taliban may have improved its chances for an opening of relations with the rest of the world. As it now stands, there seems little question that Afghanistan has indeed stopped the production of poppies in the areas under its control. Partly as a result, its farmers are destitute, their lives made more miserable by drought.
But that's not likely to faze the powers that be in Afghanistan, since most of the country's real money comes from taxing non-dope trade. Nor will it bother the drug traffickers, who swarm the region and are shifting production north and west into such places as Turkmenistan. As of last month, the U.S. had committed $124 million in aid to Afghanistan, according to the State Department. Meanwhile, Iran, which harbors some 2 million Afghan refugees and is fighting massive drug addiction, has sent agricultural engineers north to help repair Afghanistan's irrigation systems.
Last week Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan and Sudan, argued in The Wall Street Journal that the Bush administration should take a "more restrained approach" to bin Laden. "There may be a realization that the two years of unrestrained rhetoric of the Clinton administration following the 1998 attacks in Africa may have done little more than inflate the myth that has inspired others to harm Americans," he wrote.
None of this has changed the impression most people here have of the Taliban. Helms and her cohorts have a lot of work to do. As she freely admits, the Taliban leaders "are considered fascists, tyrants, Pol Pots. They can't do anything right. We perceive them as monsters no matter what they do."
Additional reporting: Ariston-Lizabeth Anderson and Rouven Gueissaz
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