Ex-envoys tell of Taliban meetings
By CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour
LONDON, England (CNN) -- On the streets and in corridors of power in the Muslim world, in the salons of Europe, people keep asking: Why has the United States never tried to talk to the Taliban about Osama Bin Laden? Where's the evidence against him? Why has the United States never presented it to the Taliban?
The answer is -- they did.
In their first television interview, the two U.S. point men on talks with the Taliban told CNN a story that is largely unknown: about their many meetings, about sharing evidence, and about ultimately failing to reach a "meeting of the minds" with the Taliban.
For nearly three years, they met for talks with the Taliban in Islamabad, Pakistan; Tashkent, Uzbekistan; Kabul, Afghanistan and Bonn, Germany -- as well as in New York and Washington. Former Clinton administration official Karl Inderfurth led many of the meetings.
"I personally think I had about 20 meetings with Taliban officials at a very senior level, including Mullah Rabbani, Mullah Jalil, Mullah Mujahed and the Taliban representative in New York," Inderfurth says. "We spent many, many hours patiently discussing our concerns with the Taliban."
There were dozens of telephone conversations with the Taliban, including the foreign minister and even once with the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Omar.
"The fact is that we wanted to establish a direct line of communication to the Taliban," Inderfurth says. "Mullah Omar got on the line and had a discussion briefly about this."
These contacts got under way in earnest only after the U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998 that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans.
Armed with evidence against Osama bin Laden that eventually was presented in a New York court, the Clinton administration's ambassador for counter-terrorism, Michael Sheehan, says he briefed the Taliban in detail in more than a dozen meetings.
"We presented that information after those indictments were concluded in early 1999," Sheehan says.
"The linkages back to al Qaeda and Bin Laden's organization were very strong in the case of the East Africa bombings. The groups, the cells that conducted that operation, had clear ties to known Bin Laden lieutenants. There were links that were well established in communications, faxes and other means that I think build a very strong case and I think was well understood by any objective persons who reviewed it," Sheehan says.
Adds Inderfurth: "In February 1999, Mike Sheehan and I travelled to Islamabad to tell the Taliban a very important message, which is not only that they must expel Bin Laden so he can be brought to justice, but henceforth because we had every reason to believe that Bin Laden continued to plot acts of terrorism, henceforth we would hold the Taliban itself responsible for those actions of Bin Laden so they were put on notice two years before September 11."
During the three-year period that began with the embassy bombings, through the bombing of the USS Cole and until just before September 11 attacks, first the Clinton administration then the Bush administration pursued a two-track policy with the Taliban: sanctions and negotiations.
But none of it worked -- even though U.S. officials say at times the Taliban indicated they might be interested in handing over Bin Laden with a face-saving device. The U.S. said they could convene their own Islamic court as a first step.
"We said, 'You can go ahead and do whatever you want regarding trials internally in Afghanistan if at the end of the day you comply with UN resolutions that required Bin Laden be turned over to justice where he could be tried for his crimes,'" Sheehan says.
For instance, a trial could have been held in Kenya, Tanzania, or Saudi Arabia -- places where Bin laden was accused of committing crimes.
The U.S. never insisted Bin Laden be handed over to a U.S. court.
"If they wished to take some kind of action as a face-saving device, that would be perfectly acceptable. ... They were never going to give him up because Omar and Bin Laden were too close," Inderfurth says.
Still the Taliban continues to claim the U.S. was not flexible enough in its negotiations, and U.S. critics accuse the Clinton administration of not focusing on the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan until it was too late. Indeed the U.S. never put Afghanistan on the list of state-sponsored terrorism because it did not want to recognize the Taliban as the leaders of that state.
Inderfurth admits his administration was initially more focused on ending the civil war and heroin production, as well as on the rights of women.
"And we were also concerned about terrorism," Inderfurth says. "But it was the bombings in East Africa that focused the great attention of the U.S. government across the board about what to do about Bin Laden's presence there."
Former envoys: Clinton gave Taliban evidence on bin Laden
November 6, 2001
Taliban warned over press briefings
November 7, 2001
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