WASHINGTON, D.C.—Just so everyone knows she wasn’t asleep at the switch, Condoleezza Rice is expected in her testimony Thursday before the 9-11 Commission to stress how the Bush administration was out to knock off the Taliban, bin Laden’s support base, from the get-go. Not only did Bush want to “arm the Northern Alliance,” she told Time last month, but to “find and develop relationships with southern tribes so that you could get the Taliban where it hurts.”
Trying to squirm out of George W. Bush’s mess by taking on the Taliban just isn’t likely to do the trick for Condi. That’s because the facts suggest that Bush may well have been trying to cut a deal with the Taliban, not overthrow them, loosening up U.N. aid in reward for their tough drug policy. On February 22, 2001, the Guardian (U.K.) reported that the Taliban might allow the extradition of bin Laden—at the time wanted for the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa—to a third Muslim country, where a group of Islamic scholars would meet and decide what to do with him. Pakistan’s interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, who met the militia’s supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, that February, reported, “Mullah Omar said that he was ready for religious scholars from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and a third Muslim country to collect in some place and having seen the evidence then this group would decide what is to be done to him.” Haider added, “I think the new administration in America should look at the problem with a fresh approach. To break the ice they should create some flexibility in their demands also.” Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf himself proposed compromise in an interview: “Between the American and the Afghan extreme stances it is possible that the United States and Afghanistan can choose another country where bin Laden can have a fair trial.”
Five days after the Guardian report, the prospect of a deal was broached in the White House daily briefing for reporters conducted by then press secretary Ari Fleischer:
Q: Ari, according to India Globe, the Taliban in Afghanistan, they have offered that they are ready to hand over Osama bin Laden to Saudi Arabia if the United States would drop its sanctions, and they have a kind of deal that they want to make with the United States. Do you have any comments?
Fleischer: Let me take that and get back to you on that.
In May, Mohammed Suhail Shaheen, second in command at the Taliban’s embassy in Pakistan, said, “We want a solution to the [bin Laden] issue, but the dignity of both Afghanistan and America must be taken into account. ”
On June 6, an article in the Voice by Camelia Fard and me set forth the odd doings of the Taliban’s roving de facto lobbyist in the U.S., Laili Helms, the niece of former CIA head Richard Helms. She told of getting word in 1999 from the Taliban leadership that they were willing to hand over to the U.S. all of bin Laden’s communications equipment that they had seized. That would mean the U.S. could close in and target bin Laden for bombing or a raid. When she told the State Department, according to her account, officials were at first interested, but later said, “No. We want him.”
She went on to tell how in that same year, Prince Turki, then the head of Saudi intelligence, came up with a scheme to capture bin Laden on his own. 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 Turki, worrying he was being set up by the wily one-eyed Omar, 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 told Turki. “What you just said made my blood boil.” The mullah took the Saudi’s suggestion as an insult; bin Laden was their guest, and they were not about to kill him. Turki flew home empty-handed.
It was against this background of half-cocked schemes, probable tricks, and maybe misunderstandings that in early 2001, according to Helms, the Taliban’s ambassador-at-large, Rahmatullah Hashami, a young man who spoke perfect English, met with CIA operations people and State Department reps. At this final meeting, she said, Hashami proposed that the Taliban hold bin Laden in one location long enough for the U.S. to find him and kill him. The U.S. refused, said Helms, who claimed that she was the go-between in this deal between the supreme leader and the feds. A State Department source, acknowledging that at the time Helms was doing a lot of lobbying for the Taliban, made clear that the U.S. did not want to kill bin Laden, but wanted him expelled from Afghanistan so he could be captured.
Why, in the midst of the Iraq scandal, Rice would try to sidetrack the probe into an examination of the Taliban’s maneuvering, is hard to fathom. For her own sake, don’t go there.
Additional reporting: Alicia Ng and Ashley Glacel