So yet another effort by a foreign power to determine the future of Afghanistan has come to an ignominious end. (See here for a timeline of the US war in that country.) While the speed with which the Taliban finally entered Kabul and took control of the country may have come as a surprise, the end result is surely not. I am struggling (and failing) to think of any time in the post-colonial era where a foreign power invaded a country, overthrew the government, installed a new one more to its liking, and then left, leaving behind a stable society. There are going to be many heated arguments trying to identify who ‘lost’ Afghanistan and pin the blame on them but the reality is that it was always never winnable in the first place. Pouring weapons and soldiers and money into the country just provided an illusion of control.
It may be good to go back to the start of the invasion following the attacks of September 11, 2001 to recall a path not taken, about the talks proposed by the Taliban before the war began, something that was not highly publicized in the media at that time.
The US quickly identified Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda as the people behind the 9/11 atrocity and learned that he was in Afghanistan. Even before that event, al Qaeda had been behind other attacks on US targets and the US had been after them. The Taliban claimed to have offered to hand bin Laden over to an international tribunal even before 9/11 but the US was not interested.
The Taliban government in Afghanistan offered to present Osama bin Laden for a trial long before the attacks of September 11, 2001, but the US government showed no interest, according to a senior aide to the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar.
Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, Taliban’s last foreign minister, told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview that his government had made several proposals to the United States to present the al-Qaeda leader, considered the mastermind of the 2001 attacks, for trial for his involvement in plots targeting US facilities during the 1990s.
“Even before the [9/11] attacks, our Islamic Emirate had tried through various proposals to resolve the Osama issue. One such proposal was to set up a three-nation court, or something under the supervision of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference [OIC],” Muttawakil said.
Robert Grenier, the CIA station chief in Pakistan at the time of 9/11, confirmed that such proposals had been made to US officials.
Grenier said the US considered the offers to bring in Bin Laden to trial a “ploy”.
“Another idea was that [bin Laden] would be brought to trial before a group of Ulema [religious scholars] in Afghanistan.
“No one in the US government took these [offers] seriously because they did not trust the Taliban and their ability to conduct a proper trial.”
The US started bombing that country on October 7th, within a month of the 9/11 attacks, in an effort to pressure the Taliban government to unconditionally hand bin Laden over. The Taliban renewed its offers to hand him over to a neutral body.
The last Taliban foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, offered at a secret meeting in Islamabad Oct. 15, 2001 to put bin Laden in the custody of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), to be tried for the 9/11 terror attacks on the United States, Muttawakil told IPS in an interview in Kabul last year.
The OIC is a moderate, Saudi-based organisation representing all Islamic countries. A trial of bin Laden by judges from OIC member countries might have dealt a more serious blow to al Qaeda’s Islamic credentials than anything the United States would have done with bin Laden.
Muttawakil also dropped a condition that the United States provide evidence of bin Laden’s guilt in the 9/11 attacks, which had been raised in late September and reiterated by Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef on Oct. 5 – two days before the U.S. bombing of Taliban targets began.
This offer too was rejected and then-president George W. Bush refused to have any negotiations with the Taliban, though it was clear that they were desperate to avoid being bombed.
President George Bush rejected as “non-negotiable” an offer by the Taliban to discuss turning over Osama bin Laden if the United States ended the bombing in Afghanistan.
Returning to the White House after a weekend at Camp David, the president said the bombing would not stop, unless the ruling Taliban “turn [bin Laden] over, turn his cohorts over, turn any hostages they hold over.” He added, “There’s no need to discuss innocence or guilt. We know he’s guilty”. In Jalalabad, deputy prime minister Haji Abdul Kabir – the third most powerful figure in the ruling Taliban regime – told reporters that the Taliban would require evidence that Bin Laden was behind the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, but added: “we would be ready to hand him over to a third country”.
The US may well have felt that the Taliban were being disingenuous in their offer to hand bin Laden over to a third nation and that they were merely stalling for time or that they would only hand him over to a body that would not hold him accountable. But it is not clear why they could not have called the Taliban’s bluff. The only thing they would have lost would have been some time. The war option was still available. For the US the war option is, sadly, always available. Even more sadly, it is often the first and most favored option.
But you have to have lived in the US at that time to understand the level of white-hot anger that permeated all levels of the country. The feeling of anger that the US had been attacked had created an a raging desire for revenge that could only be satisfied by killing a lot of people and it really did not matter who they were, as long as they were Muslim and brown. Recall the infamous interview given by Thomas Friedman who said that it did not matter whom the US attacked, it just had to demonstrate raw power.
“I think it [the invasion of Iraq] was unquestionably worth doing, Charlie.
We needed to go over there, basically, um, and um, uh, take out a very big stick right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble, and there was only one way to do it.
What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, um and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand?”
You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna to let it grow?
Well, Suck. On. This.
That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could’ve hit Saudi Arabia, it was part of that bubble. We coulda hit Pakistan. We hit Iraq because we could.”
Or the words of neoconservative Michael Ledeen who was quoted as saying, “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business”.
These people did not want a peaceful resolution. They did not even want justice. They wanted blood, lots of blood, and they got it.
There was also the geopolitical strategizing of the neoconservatives who saw the opportunity to mobilize this anger to invade Iraq and then later Iran and even Saudi Arabia. The latter group could not take the chance of getting bin Laden peacefully and putting him on trial and thus squandering what they saw as a golden opportunity to wage a wide-ranging war that would end with the US controlling that entire region.
So here we are twenty years later, with the Taliban back in power and bin Laden gone. Could we have arrived at this same state twenty years ago through negotiations and spared the Afghan people all the death and suffering they have gone through? One will never know. But it is sad that that option was not even tried.