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U.S., Taliban bargained over bin Laden, documents show

Declassified State Department papers detail 1998 meetings

A U.S. official met with an aide to Taliban chief Mullah Omar in 1998, according to U.S. documents.



Acts of terror
Osama Bin Laden

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- During secret meetings with U.S. officials in 1998, top Taliban officials discussed assassinating or expelling Osama bin Laden in response to al Qaeda's deadly bombings of U.S. embassies in Africa, according to State Department documents.

The newly declassified documents, posted Thursday on the National Archives Web site, provide a fascinating glimpse into U.S. diplomacy exerted on Afghanistan's ruling Taliban -- a regime officially unrecognized by Washington -- nearly three years before the September 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the United States.

According to the documents, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, Alan Eastham Jr., met with Wakil Ahmed, a close aide to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, in November and December 1998. That was just months after the August al Qaeda attacks that killed more than 200 people at the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.

"It is unbelievable that this small man did this to you," Ahmed said during their meeting on December 19, 1998, according to the documents.

Ahmed told Eastham that he spoke with Omar about bin Laden and that the Taliban still considered the Saudi exile "innocent."

Talk of assassination

During a meeting between Ahmed and Eastham on November 28, 1998, just days after the Taliban's supreme court cleared bin Laden of terrorist activities, Ahmed said one possibility "would be for the U.S. to kill him or arrange for bin Laden to be assassinated."

Ahmed "said that the U.S., if it chose to do so, could arrange to have bin Laden killed by cruise missiles or other means, and there would be little the Taliban could do to prevent it," according to the documents.

Another alternative, Ahmed said, would be for the United States to provide the Taliban with cruise missiles to have "the situation resolved in this way." Ahmed also noted that expelling bin Laden likely would result in the Taliban regime being overthrown, according to the documents.

And while Ahmed suggested a possible assassination of bin Laden, he also "urged the U.S. not to bomb Afghanistan again" as Washington did in the weeks following the embassy bombings. Ahmed "asked instead for a new U.S. proposal aimed at resolving the matter," the documents said.

'I consider you as murderers'

Ahmed expressed anger about the cruise missile attacks ordered by President Clinton on al Qaeda training camps in Khost, Afghanistan, targeting bin Laden after the embassy bombings. Twenty-two Afghans, including members of al Qaeda, were killed in the attacks.

"If Kandahar could have retaliated with similar strikes against Washington, it would have," Ahmed said, according to the documents.

"I consider you as murderers of Afghans," Ahmed told Eastham. "The U.S. said bin Laden had killed innocent people, but had not the U.S. killed innocent Afghans in Khost too? Was this not a crime?"

Saudi influence

The declassified State Department documents were cables recapping the meetings and outlining the U.S. position on bin Laden. They were originally sent to U.S. officials in Washington; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Peshawar, Pakistan; Cairo, Egypt; Abu Dhabi, UAE; Lahore, Pakistan; and the United Nations.

A State Department cable sent on October 19, 1998, said the best course of action in getting bin Laden handed over would be through Saudi Arabia, which "maintains significant prestige in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

It said a then-upcoming trip by Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah to Pakistan provided a "ready-made opportunity for the Saudis to press the Pakistani government to exert pressure on the Taliban concerning bin Laden."

It also said the United States should continue to pursue talks amid "indications that other Taliban leaders are getting nervous on the issue."

"The U.S. should appeal to the natural trading mentality of many Afghans -- and perhaps some Taliban -- by setting out what the Taliban stand to gain by expelling bin Laden as well as what they stand to lose," the cable said.

Taliban cooperation

At the same time, U.S. officials were under no illusions about the prospects of Taliban cooperation: "The fact is that the leader of the Taliban appears to be strongly committed to bin Laden. It is questionable whether U.S. or Saudi efforts can influence Omar's decisions."

By the end of the November 28 meeting, pressed on why the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden, Ahmed said that the Afghan people "would not understand why the Taliban had expelled a man who was regarded as a 'great mujahid,' or Islamic fighter, during the war against the Soviets. They would reject the Taliban if the Taliban took this action."

Eastham responded by telling Ahmed the Taliban had to recognize for itself "that the role of political leadership is to shape public opinion, not to decline to act because they think opinion is otherwise."

The cable concluded that Ahmed "wanted very strongly to convey the message that the Taliban did not consider the bin Laden matter resolved in the wake of the recent supreme court decision."

But within a month, it was clear the Taliban had hardened its position. "We have little indication that anything we said got through to" Ahmed, a cable said about the December 19 meeting.

Bin Laden 'most important'

The documents indicate that bin Laden was clearly Washington's priority with the Taliban in 1998 -- rather than reported human rights violations by their Afghan government.

"The continued presence in Afghanistan of bin Laden and his network is by far the most important," said a State Department cable sent on October 19, 1998.

The State Department has issued a $25 million reward for bin Laden and $10 million for Mullah Omar.

In October of 2001 a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan toppled the Taliban regime.

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