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U.S. repeatedly asked Taliban to expel bin Laden

Declassified cable details years of negotiations

From Henry Schuster

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Osama Bin Laden
September 11 attacks

(CNN) -- The U.S. government asked the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to expel or hand over Osama bin Laden more than two dozen times between September 1996 and summer 2001, according to a recently declassified State Department cable.

Three of those attempts were made after the Bush administration came into office in late January 2001.

Despite the various efforts, "these talks have been fruitless," the cable said.

The cable was written in July 2001 and was obtained recently by the National Security Archive at George Washington University through the Freedom of Information Act. The National Security Archive posted the document to its Web site Friday.

Sajit Gandhi, research associate at the NSA, said there are indications that the Taliban were approached more than 30 times during the time period.

The Taliban religious militia ruled much of Afghanistan from the mid-1990s until a coalition of U.S. and allied forces drove them from power in November 2001.

The Taliban had given haven to al Qaeda before the attacks of September 11 2001. Remnants of the group remain active, and bin Laden is still at large.

The State Department held its first meeting with a Taliban official September 18, 1996, when the political officer at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, asked that bin Laden be made "unwelcome" in Afghanistan.

According to the document, the U.S. official was told by the Afghani deputy foreign affairs adviser that "the Taliban do not support terrorism and would not provide refuge to bin Laden."

Gandhi said he was particularly struck by a U.S. request in early 1997 that it be allowed to visit "militant training camps in eastern Afghanistan," and that a Taliban official initially agreed. But the Afghan government kept delaying the visit and finally rescinded the offer in April.

The cable recounts, in chronological order, a series of attempts to get bin Laden out of Afghanistan that continued before and after the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, which the United States linked to al Qaeda. The U.S. government warned the Taliban, for example, in September 1998, that they would be held accountable for any future terrorist actions by bin Laden.

The Taliban offered a series of responses, most of which were made public at the time. First, the Afghan government told the United States that to oust bin Laden "would violate Taliban rules of hospitality," then later said they would put bin Laden on trial. However, the Taliban rejected the evidence linking bin Laden to the embassy bombings.

At one point, a Taliban spokesman also told a U.S. official that his government could not expel bin Laden because it "would result in the downfall of the Taliban."

The Bush administration continued the warnings, with contacts February 8, March 19 and July 2, 2001. In the last communication, the Taliban deputy foreign minister told the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan that bin Laden had not been convicted and that officials of his government "still consider him innocent."

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