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Could the Taleban Have Helped the US Against al-Qaida?

A major American newspaper reports Osama bin Laden and the Taleban were often at odds, so much so that the terrorist was on the verge of being ejected from Afghanistan. According to the newspaper report, the U.S. missile attack on Afghanistan in August 1998 abruptly ended that possibility. Could the United States have exploited the differences between al-Qaida and the Taleban and thus perhaps prevented the September 11th attack?

Wall Street Journal reporters came across an abandoned computer in Kabul that has yielded a treasure trove of information about al-Qaida and the Taleban. The two groups worked together, but often uneasily, even with some hostility.

A computer message from an Egyptian associate of Osama bin Laden said Afghanistan is worse than a tomb and not fit for al-Qaida work, which ideally relies on sophisticated technologies or at least working telephones.

In turn, the Taleban resented the arrogance and grandstanding of the terorrist leader and the Arabs. As the computer discloses, it was hard to find common ground, said Charles Dunbar, professor of international relations at Simmons College and a former U.S. diplomat who served in Afghanistan.

"The Afghans do not much care for people throwing their weight around. They will take their money, but they will not be friendly with them. And I think that the Arabs and other militants who were there found that to be the case," Mr. Dunbar said.

The Journal said the computer reveals a moderate group within the Taleban that wanted to get rid of Osama bin Laden and establish relations with the United States. Under their pressure, Mullah Omar made a secret agreement to send the al-Qaida leader to Saudi Arabia to stand trial for treason. Prince Turki bin Faisal, then head of Saudi intelligence, said it was a done deal, soon to be undone.

After the al-Qaida bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa, the Clinton administration retaliated with a missile attack on a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan and alleged terrorist camps in Afghanistan.

That put an end to Taleban moderation, said Larry Goodson, professor of Middle East Studies at the U.S. Army War College and author of the book, Afghanistan's Endless War.

"Mullah Omar was still being strongly lobbied by a moderate faction within the Taleban movement, that did not really like the Arab radical influence personified by bin Laden. After those missile attacks, there was a kind of purging of some of the more moderate elements within the Taleban. Thereafter, that group began to decline in influence, and bin Laden's influence began to grow," Mr. Goodson said.

Saudi intelligence chief, Prince Turki, found Mullah Omar a changed man, no longer willing to cooperate, and rude and insulting. Acting in unison, al-Qaida and the Taleban moved to their violent conclusion.

Professor Goodson thinks the United States may have missed an opportunity to separate the Taleban from Osama bin Laden. "Rather than trying to divide and conquer or deal with the more moderate faction or try to strengthen the hand of the more moderate faction, we adopted the approach that we were going to keep Afghanistan in a box. We were not going to recognize them. We were not going to aid them in significant ways. In fact, we took a very hard line stance toward the Taleban regime," he said.

But Charles Dunbar notes the United States made repeated efforts to engage the Taleban without success. He adds, once the embassies in Africa were bombed, there was little alternative to an armed response. "If you put yourself in the shoes of the policy-makers in August, 1998, I think there was a need to do something quickly when we had been hit that hard. And I think subtleties of exploiting differences between the Taleban and al-Qaida would have been very difficult to present to the American leadership in that kind of an atmosphere," Mr. Dunbar said.

Mr. Dunbar said the Taleban/al-Qaida split remains one of history's "what ifs", and that it can be endlessly argued with no sure answer available.