The Taliban’s Broken Pledge to Contain Terrorists

A generation ago, the Taliban promised to prevent Osama bin Laden from targeting Americans—then came 9/11.

The success of the Trump administration’s Afghanistan diplomacy hinges on the Taliban’s willingness to prevent international terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State, from using territory under its control to plan terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies.

For those who remember the Taliban’s rule in the 1990s, accepting Taliban assurances may be a bit hard to swallow. Through the 1990s, U.S. diplomats such as Bill Richardson and Karl “Rick” Inderfurth, then assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, met frequently Taliban officials, including the movement’s U.S.-based representative, Abdul Hakim Mujahid, who headed up the Taliban’s U.N. diplomatic outpost from a second-story walk-up apartment in Queens, New York.

The message was clear: Hand over Osama bin Laden, who had sought safe haven in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, if you want better relations with the United States. The Taliban response was a moving target. On Feb. 3, 1999, a senior Taliban official, Mullah Jalil, assured Inderfurth during a meeting in Islamabad that the Taliban had imposed new “restrictions” on bin Laden to ensure he presented no threat to the United States. Other sources assured that the Taliban had bin Laden “under control.”

But two weeks later, on Feb. 17, the Taliban narrative shifted. In a secret diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, which we are highlighting as our Document of the Week, the Taliban’s U.S.-based envoy tried another tack.

Bin Laden, Mujahid told Inderfurth, “was no longer in Taliban-controlled territory. He would not provide further details but implied that UBL [bin Laden] was elsewhere in Afghanistan though en route to a foreign destination. He said the circumstances would be clarified in three or four weeks.”

Mujahid—who had frequently expressed opposition to bin Laden and hoped that the Taliban could develop close relations with the United States—insisted “that it was difficult for the Taliban to expel UBL because of the effect upon public opinion in Afghanistan and the Islamic world, but the [Taliban] had imposed restrictions upon him in hopes of forcing him to leave willingly.”

Inderfurth replied that the United States was “disappointed” that the Taliban had not expelled bin Laden “to a jurisdiction where he could be brought to justice.” If bin Laden were to stage a terrorist attack before his whereabouts could be established, Inderfurth warned, “the Taliban could still be held responsible.”

Two and a half years later, bin Laden orchestrated the 9/11 terrorist attack against the United States from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, triggering the U.S. military intervention into Afghanistan and the overthrow of the Taliban. Over the past 10 months, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan, has been negotiating the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan with representatives of a resurgent Taliban. A U.S. pullout is conditioned on the Taliban’s commitment to prevent territory under their control from being used as a staging ground for terrorists.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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