Has bin Laden made himself expendable?

Now that the Taliban's main opposition leader is dead, a scholar argues, the group may be more willing to hand over Osama bin Laden.

By Max Garrone

Published September 18, 2001 7:57PM (EDT)

After Taliban rebels took control of Kabul in 1996, the Taliban relied on financial and military support from a number of "Afghan Arabs" -- wealthy Arabs from the Middle East who supported the rise of an Islamic government in Central Asia. Among them was Osama bin Laden, who used his personal fortune on Afghani infrastructure like roads and housing, and funding a military operation to help the Taliban defeat its internal enemies.

"The Taliban have gained more from bin Laden's assistance than they have lost by remaining an international pariah," says Michael Rubin in the London Daily Telegraph.

In essence, the relationship between bin Laden and the Taliban has always been symbiotic. Bin Laden agreed to bankroll the Taliban and help them fight their internal enemies and, in return, bin Laden had a place to train his armies of Islamic radicals and seek refuge while remaining the target of a worldwide manhunt. During the course of his many legendary all-night sessions discussing theology, bin Laden was able to leverage his financial support to radicalize the Taliban's form of Islamic fundamentalism and, in exchange, bin Laden assisted the Taliban in its struggle against the last remaining rebel group, the Northern Alliance.

"It's clear that initially Taliban policies were very different [in the mid-'90s] than what we know today," said Stephen Cohen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

But now, says M. Hassan Kakar, author of "Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response, 1979-1982," bin Laden has become expendable. Ironically, he says, bin Laden's relevance has diminished because of the recent assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the most powerful rebel leader in Afghanistan, which many people believe bin Laden helped arrange.

Mukhamadsalekh Reghistani, a military attaché with the Afghan government in exile's Moscow embassy, told Agence France-Presse the assassination "was ordered by Pakistani secret services, the Taliban and Osama bin Laden." Now that the Taliban's major internal security threat has been eliminated, they may be able to look at bin Laden as expendable and accede to the diplomatic pressure from the West. It's very possible that the international community may have more to offer Afghanistan in terms of financial and material aid. Since August of 2000 the United States alone has delivered $105 million in wheat and other supplies to United Nations aid agencies directed at Afghanistan as well as other recent aid packages directed toward the Taliban's poppy eradication efforts.

The American ultimatum to the Taliban to hand over bin Laden "comes at a point in time when it would be relatively easy for the Taliban to hand him over because their main opposition leader is dead and the Taliban's dependence on bin Laden has decreased," says Kakar. "He's lost his relevance."

Kakar says that it shouldn't be very difficult for the Taliban to "get rid of" bin Laden because it's "the sensible thing for them to do if they want to keep Afghanistan under their power. I talked to a senior member of the Afghanistani government Monday and told him that they should follow this course of action as the only way open to them to deal with Tuesday's events." Kakar says that the official was "very receptive and said that at this point his main motivation is to save Afghanistan."

At this juncture the Taliban may have to make a political choice at the expense of ideology but no one really knows how the Taliban will react. The Western world and Afghanistan have a long history of misunderstandings, and experts who have tried to handicap the Taliban's reactions in the past have proven wrong, says Kakar.

It's "a mutual fact that the Taliban don't understand us and we don't understand them. They don't understand the outside world," he says. "They're trying to model their state on the early Islamic period, which means that they don't care very much about the actual realities in Afghanistan today or the rest of the world. They don't have many ambassadors, the ones they do have are probably not very educated, they probably haven't studied history or political science or any of the other disciplines that would be useful to them in understanding how today's world functions. It's a complex world, so it's not easy for them."

After heavy diplomatic pressure from the United States a high-level Pakistani delegation delivered a 72-hour ultimatum to the Taliban Monday for expelling bin Laden from Afghanistan. Late Monday the Taliban announced that it was pulling together a meeting of all its clerics on Tuesday to decide the matter. That group has since met and has yet to deliver a decision, though Taliban officials have reacted defiantly. A senior Taliban official told AFP that "if there is an invasion of an Islamic country, there will be jihad against the invaders."

Kakar describes this meeting of clerics as "a make or break moment for the Taliban." Afghanistan is ringed by countries anxious to knock them out of power so that they could exert their own influence over the mineral- and resource-rich region that they view as their own backyard. It's also occupied by citizens who, though thankful for the order that the Taliban has brought, have begun to chafe under their yoke.

"It's not difficult for them to get rid of him," Kakar says. "They have to hand him over."

Max Garrone

Max Garrone is Salon's Vice President for Operations.

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