The central justification of the U.S.-NATO 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 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 U.S.-backed Afghan administration.
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 Afghanistan.
"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
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.
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.
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
But the George W. Bush administration remained uninterested in offering assurances of security to the Taliban.
Grenier, then the CIA station chief in Islamabad, revealed in an
article in al Jazeera Jan. 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 U.S. Defence Department to release Muttawakil,
according to Grenier. But Muttawakil remained in detention at Bagram
Airbase, where he was physically abused, until October 2003.
new evidence undermines the Barack Obama administration's claim that
Taliban-ruled areas of Afghanistan would become a "sanctuary" for al
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 Taliban".
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 recognise 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 Dec. 4, 2009, said the "Islamic
Emirate of Afghanistan" - the term used by the insurgent leadership to
refer to the organisation - 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".
specialists on the history of the relationship have long questioned
that assumption, and have emphasised 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 bin Laden was not that
close to Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed Omar before the 9/11
The new paper, based on both Taliban and jihadist
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.
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 al Qaeda leader Osama
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 jihadists 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.
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 April 2001.
Contrary to the
suggestion that the Taliban were complicit with the Sep. 11, 2001
attacks, however, Strick van Linschoten and Kuehn assert that Mullah
Omar and other leaders refused to hand over bin Laden to the United
States 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 U.S. 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.
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
U.S.-led military offensive would continue.