That’s not where al Qaeda is

When President Obama endorsed the Afghan war as his own, the reason he gave was «because that’s where al Qaeda is.» In point of fact, al Qaeda skedaddled out of Afghanistan shortly after U.S. troops invaded the country on Oct. 7, 2001. The bulk of the Afghan-based al Qaeda terrorists, led by Osama bin Laden and his family, pushed through the Tora Bora mountain range that straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border on their way to what they knew would be safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal belt.

On Dec. 6 that year, Ajmal Khattak, the head of the Khattak tribe, who commanded about 600,000 pairs of eyes and ears in the area, advised this reporter and his Pakistani associates to be on horseback at the exit of the Tirah Valley as soon as possible. We flew over from Washington and got ourselves into position on Dec. 11 only to learn from local villagers that bin Laden and about 50 people had come out of the valley Dec. 9 and immediately had gotten into waiting vehicles and driven off in direction of Peshawar. Despite Pakistani assurances that troops would be deployed at likely Tora Bora exit points, we didn’t see any.

Khattak, 83, was a close friend of my United Press International associate for South Asia, Ammar Turabi. Khattak died earlier this month without ever meeting a U.S. intelligence officer. Yet he was a mine of information and contacts throughout the region who liked to make things happen.

Former president of the Awami National Party, he also was a prolific poet in both Pashto and Urdu whose poems and other writings celebrated the courage of revolutionaries. In his small native village, Akora Khattak, we frequently sipped tea with him in a dwelling that was more shack than house. He despised al Qaeda and was the first to tell us, before we journeyed to Kandahar in late May 2001, that there were major differences between Taliban dictator Mullah Mohammed Omar and bin Laden. He also paved the way for our meeting with Mullah Omar on June 4, 2001.

The second major erroneous assumption made by President Obama is that if the Taliban get back to power in Afghanistan, «al Qaeda will be back in a heartbeat.» Taliban’s Mullah Omar and bin Laden are not Tweedledee and Tweedledum, nor are they twins who evolved a bizarre master-slave relationship, nor Jekyll and Hyde, an altruistically well-meaning doctor who becomes a monster bent on lust and destruction.

The ideological and personality differences between bin Laden and Mullah Omar have long been misunderstood. Taliban is an indigenous Afghan movement made up of mostly ethnic Pashtuns, midwifed by Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency to put an end to a civil war and fill a vacuum left by the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan. Mullah Omar consolidated his power with the title of Amir-ul-Mumineen (Supreme Commander of the Faithful) in the «Islamic Emirate» of Afghanistan, a medieval theocratic dictatorship and pitiless inquisition.

Bin Laden, expelled from Sudan in 1996 by combined U.S., European and Saudi pressure, opted to return to his old stomping grounds in Afghanistan while Mullah Omar was still consolidating his civil war victory.

Bin Laden the ambitious global braggadocio was not what Mullah Omar the recluse had in mind. It was a shotgun wedding. Mullah Omar resented the worldwide publicity bin Laden was getting from foreign journalists in 1996 through 1999 and warned bin Laden to cut it out.

Mullah Omar and officials in his immediate entourage made clear to both Mr. Turabi and this reporter that they were unhappy with bin Laden’s activities. Any fatwa issued by bin Laden declaring jihad, or holy war, against the United States and ordering Muslims to kill Americans was «null and void,» Mullah Omar said. «He is not entitled to issue fatwas,» he explained, «as he did not complete the mandatory 12 years of Koranic studies to qualify for the position of mufti.»

The then-4l-year-old (now 50) mullah said the «Islamic Emirate had offered the United States and the United Nations to place international monitors to observe Osama bin Laden pending the resolution of the case, but so far we have received no reply.»

Mullah Omar told UPI the Taliban regime would like to «resolve or dissolve» the bin Laden issue. In return, he expected the United States to establish a dialogue to work out an acceptable solution that would lead to «an easing and then lifting of U.N. sanctions that are strangling and killing the people of the emirate.»

The one-eyed, 6-foot 6-inch, five-times-wounded veteran of the war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, also said bin Laden was not allowed any further contact with the media or foreign government representatives. Bin Laden himself swore fealty to Mullah Omar in a statement published the previous April (2001).

The 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. Embassies in Tanzania and Kenya triggered U.S. retaliatory cruise-missile strikes against al Qaeda’s Afghan training camps. Mullah Omar was rattled and feared his regime might be next. But bin Laden swore on the Koran, according to one of Mullah Omar’s ranking deputies, that he had had nothing to do with those bombings. Then came the 2000 attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, and bin Laden pleaded he was not responsible for what others did in his name. Mullah Omar pointed out that the Koran forbids the taking of the lives of innocent women, children and old people in strife, conflict and war and that «the perpetrators are criminals and should be so judged.»

Mullah Omar reminded us that bin Laden is «a hero of the war against the Soviet occupation of our country» and «he does not operate against anyone from the soil of Afghanistan. We requested that of him. We have his verbal and written pledge that he will abide by it in order that the relations between the Islamic Emirate and other nations are not affected.» The attacks on the World Trade Center’s twin towers and the Pentagon took place three months later.

Khattak told us about «deep fissures behind a patina of Islamic unity» between Taliban’s Mullah Omar and al Qaeda’s bin Laden. They’ve been there since bin Laden arrived in 1996 but were never exploited. Mullah Omar was prepared to turn bin Laden over to a Shariah court in a neutral Muslim country. But the incoming Bush 43 team had other priorities.

Arnaud de Borchgrave, editor-at-large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.