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BOOK EXCERPT: Losing bin Laden

"BOOK EXCERPT: Losing bin Laden" Continued...

Issue: "Sciavo: Saved by the bill," Nov. 1, 2003

In an instant, 256 people were dead and another 4,500 were wounded.

Strangely, al-Owhali was not among them. Hot flying rubble and glass had cut his face, hands, and back. But he was able to get up and walk away. Miraculously, the martyr had lived....

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN-Days after the embassy bombings, Clinton was searching for nonviolent solutions to the bin Laden threat. He would try a final, secret diplomatic offer. It is reported here in full for the first time.

He sent U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson to the capital of Pakistan in the second week of August 1998. Richardson's most important meeting was the one not listed on his official schedule-a secret meeting with the Taliban.

The Taliban representative, Mullah Mohammed Rabbani, was one of the few Taliban leaders who spoke English and one of the many who wanted better relations with the United States. It wasn't that the Taliban had warmed to the "great Satan." The Taliban's radical Islamism was as fevered and intense as ever. But economic sanctions and the Taliban's diplomatic isolation were taking their toll. Only three nations on earth recognized the Taliban government as legitimate. United Nations relief convoys had stopped rolling, and private humanitarian groups had fled. Hunger grew and hospitals began reusing bandages. Even the Taliban realized that as the displeasure of the ordinary Afghans swelled, an anarchic tide threatened to sweep them from office.

Richardson had met with Rabbani months earlier in April 1998, and that meeting had gone reasonably well. The mullah made some encouraging remarks about improving girls' access to schooling and ending the harassment of non-Muslim nonprofit groups. Later, Maulvi Abdul Wakil Mutawakil, a member of the Taliban's ruling council, publicly announced that the Taliban would turn over bin Laden if it received "conclusive proof" that bin Laden was a terrorist.

Days after the embassy bombings, Richardson came armed with definitive proof of bin Laden's link to the attacks. Following Clinton's instructions, Richardson asked Afghanistan to expel bin Laden, just as Sudan did two years before.

This demand seems to illustrate how distracted Clinton had become by scandals. Clinton had long been seen as a "policy wonk's policy wonk," a man who was in command of even the most minute details about government policy. But somewhere Clinton the Ÿber-policy wonk failed to recognize that expelling bin Laden had been tried in the Sudan. A relocated bin Laden had now blown up two American embassies and murdered some two dozen Americans along with hundreds of luckless Africans. It was one of the largest attacks on American civilians since World War II. Why would repeating this failed expulsion policy work any better this time? Wouldn't it simply provoke another attack?

Rabbani politely declined to expel bin Laden. Apparently, the Taliban's earlier pledge to turn over bin Laden if given conclusive proof of terrorism proved to be so much hot air. The Taliban had adopted a Saudi Arabian notion of hospitality-bin Laden was a good Muslim, a guest of the regime, and therefore could not be expelled. In reality bin Laden had other attributes the Taliban valued. He supplied weapons, ammunition, and military training to the Taliban. In some cases, al-Qaeda troops even fought alongside the Taliban's militias against the Northern Alliance. And bin Laden had shrewdly married off one of his teenage daughters to a son of Mullah Omar, the Taliban's one-eyed leader. They were family now. Asking the Taliban to remove bin Laden was mission impossible. Again, something he should have known before ordering Richardson to Islamabad.

Within an hour, Richardson called Clinton on a secure telephone line. No deal. No surprise.

A gregarious southern politician, Clinton had assumed he could cut a deal with anyone. Just like LBJ. And, like LBJ, he refused to see that Communists and Islamists were unappeasable....

NEW YORK-In a public room in Manhattan's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, in September 1998, [counter terrorism czar] Richard Clarke stepped up to the podium. It was a rare public appearance by the ultimate insider.

He wanted to talk about America's Achilles heel. "Where is that?" he asked. "It's here. It's in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. It's where we are weakest, where we don't have two thousand troops and tanks and bombers to protect the U.S. It's where our national brain trust is."

He did not know just how prophetic his warnings would be.

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