The conspiracy theory that wouldn't die

Did a shadowy group of American diplomats threaten the Taliban last year, provoking the 9/11 attack? Many on the left think so. Now the diplomats tell their side of the story.

Published August 16, 2002 1:38AM (EDT)

In July 2001, a group of retired diplomats from the United States, Iran, Pakistan and Russia gathered in Berlin to discuss the future of Afghanistan. It was one of several brainstorming sessions about that troubled country sponsored by the United Nations last year. During the days, the men met in tony hotel conference rooms. At night, they shared drinks or dinner. And during every discussion, the diplomats focused on the Taliban -- how to make the radical Muslim group form a broad-based government and give up Osama bin Laden, who was suspected of masterminding several terrorist attacks.

These facts about the Berlin meeting are not in dispute. Everything else is. The question of exactly what was said in Berlin and how it was translated to the Taliban has become the centerpiece of a vast dispute about the Bush administration, Osama bin Laden and the buildup to the Sept. 11 attacks. On the left, it has become an article of faith for many that the U.N.-sponsored meetings were part of a concerted Bush administration effort to push for an oil-and-gas pipeline through Afghanistan. When the talks fell apart, it's been alleged, the administration used the diplomats to issue a military threat, which was carried back to the Taliban. Bin Laden, the theory goes, then decided to strike first, making the Sept. 11 attacks not a random act of terrorist violence, but rather a preemptive strike -- a calculated response to the Bush administration's love of oil, and its irresponsible saber-rattling in pursuit of it.

That tangled theory mostly hinges on one source: Niaz Naik,a member of the Pakistani delegation to the U.N. talks, who told the British press two weeks after Sept. 11 that the United States had issued a military threat at the meetings. He told the same story to several French reporters in the following months. In Naik's early telling, Tom Simons -- a U.S. delegate at the meetings and former ambassador to Pakistan -- issued a noteworthy ultimatum: "Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs."

The quote and Naik's account of the Berlin meeting took on lives of their own -- especially after a pair of French authors, Jean-Charles Brisard and Guillaume Dasquie, made Naik a key figure in their international bestseller, "Forbidden Truth: U.S.-Taliban Secret Diplomacy and the Failed Hunt for Bin Laden." According to the book, Naik confirmed what the authors had been told by legendary FBI anti-terror czar John O'Neill before he died Sept. 11 -- that oil interests had hampered the investigation into Osama bin Laden's terror network, and provoked the U.S. into making a military threat that triggered Sept. 11. The Berlin threat Naik described, they argued, was the result of President Bush's attempt to access central Asian oil. "The suicide attacks of Sept. 11 were the outcome of this initiative -- an outcome that was as forseeable as it was tragic," the authors wrote in the French edition of their book, published earlier this year.

More than a year after the Berlin meeting, the theory is everywhere. One Web site calls "Forbidden Truth" "a major bombshell about the true origins of this conflict." Another,, tells readers how to buy "the book that Bush doesn't want you to read this summer." Customer reviews at lavish high praise on Brisard, Dasquie and their book. Even high-profile left-wing intellectuals like Gore Vidal continue to spread Naik's basic theory -- that Sept. 11 occurred because, in Vidal's words, "they knew we were coming."

Not every lefty has fallen for this line of thinking. David Corn has written several blistering condemnations of Brisard and Dasquie's efforts in the Nation, alleging that they've played fast and loose with the facts while making "an utterly illogical case." Ken Silverstein, writing in the American Prospect, has also punctured the idea that the Bush administration only invaded Afghanistan to access oil. Even Brisard and Dasquie have softened their rhetoric; the English version of the book that hit stores in July contains several new paragraphs that attempt to qualify earlier assertions. The line quoted above has been rewritten to say that the attacks were the "possible outcome" of Bush policies.

So who's right, Vidal and the French authors or their critics? Was oil a key motive behind Bush administration overtures to the Taliban last year? What were the U.N.'s so-called "Track 2" discussions, and what were they supposed to yield? Did the Americans, intentionally or unintentionally, issue a threat? Who is Niaz Naik anyway, and can he be believed?

There's an aura of mystery to most of the writing about these questions, as though getting to the truth requires penetrating a conspiracy wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma. Brisard and Dasquie, like much of the European press, treat the Track 2 meetings as cloak-and-dagger affairs. In "Forbidden Truth," they're characterized as "private and risky discussions," and the American delegates are part of a "secretive 'sub-group" that President Bush apparently sent on a very private mission. The French authors quote Naik directly, but never interviewed the Americans. In an e-mail, Brisard says he and Dasquie "didn't interview directly the U.S. delegation simply because there was enough evidence to prove that a threat was effectively stated in July in Berlin." Their absence from the book leaves the impression, however unintentional, that these shadowy figures have chosen to stay in the shadows.

That part of the story, at least, turned out not to be true. I tracked down the American participants in the July Berlin meeting, as well as Naik himself, and asked them what went on. All were eager to talk. Their answers don't necessarily add up to the truth, forbidden or otherwise, about their abortive diplomatic project, but they dispel some of the myths that have grown up around it.

The July meetings were the third in a series of U.N.-sponsored discussions about Afghanistan; the other two took place in November and March. According to Brisard and Dasquie, their objective was "to convince the Taliban that once a broad-based government of national unity was installed and the pipeline project was in the works, there would be billions of dollars in commission -- of which the Taliban, with their own resources, would get a cut."

But all the participants in the meetings that I was able to reach, including Naik, insist the long-discussed Afghanistan oil pipeline project had nothing to do with their agenda. Yes, throughout much of the 1990s Unocal had worked with various Afghan governments and officials to try to build a pipeline. And yes, former Unocal consultants and oil experts were party to the U.N. meetings. All of them insist, however, that the pipeline project was dead when their U.N. discussions began -- Unocal had abandoned it when the U.S. began making its case that the Taliban was harboring bin Laden after the August 1998 embassy bombings -- and never came up there.

Robert Oakley, a former Unocal consultant who was also the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan under the first President Bush, has been cast as the central figure in many accounts of the discussions, largely because of his ties to Unocal. But Oakley, who teaches at the Institute for National Strategic Studies in Washington, insists he only attended the first U.N. meeting, and that the pipeline was never discussed.

"I didn't go to the other meetings because I didn't think it was worthwhile," says Oakley. "The first meeting produced nothing; I knew the others wouldn't either." Oakley, who served as the State Department's coordinator for counter-terrorism during the 1980s, and as an ambassador to Somalia and Zaire as well as Pakistan, insists the pipeline project was dead before the discussions, and no one at the meeting he attended was trying to revive it.

The three Americans at the July meeting -- former ambassador Tom Simons, Karl "Rick" Inderfurth, former assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs, and Lee Coldren, a former State Department official in charge of Afghanistan -- all back Oakley. After Unocal stopped pushing for the pipeline project in 1998, no other energy firm stepped forward to invest, they insist. And even if another company expressed interest, says Inderfurth, who admits to pushing for the pipeline in the early '90s, no bank would back them. "They [Unocal] pulled out entirely after Clinton launched missiles into those camps," he says. "Pipelines and proposals for pipelines were dead as a doornail during that period -- and the Taliban never raised the issue in meetings I had with them."

It's true that the Americans who were party to the Track 2 Afghanistan discussions backed the pipeline project -- but so did most Clinton administration officials in the region. In June, Salon ran an article by Brisard documenting al-Qaida's interest in the Unocal pipeline project, and tracing the ties between the Bush administration's Afghanistan advisors and Unocal through to today. Clearly oil interests continue to play a role in the administration's diplomatic relationship with Hamid Karzai's government: President Bush's special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, was, like Oakley, a member of Unocal's pipeline advisory board. But Oakley insists none of the parties to last year's meetings had any illusions that overtures to the Taliban, or even a reconstituted Afghan government, could revive the pipeline project. "You couldn't do business with the Taliban for political and economic reasons," he says, and even a post-Taliban Afghanistan would prove too risky an environment to invest in massively.

"These companies do not have the money, the billions of dollars that are needed to put in a pipeline," Coldren said. "They have to borrow that money. And no one in their right mind is going to loan them that money when you have a state of eternal warfare."

On that point, Niaz Naik backs his American counterparts. Speaking from his home in Islamabad, Naik says the pipeline was never discussed during the July meetings. When asked if the pipeline came up at any point in the Track 2 discussions, his answer was quick and clear: "No, absolutely not."

But on the question of whether the American diplomats issued threats to the Taliban, there's no such accord.

Naik stands by his initial account of the July meeting. The Americans "felt that the time had come that the Taliban government should be ousted by any means which is feasible," he says. "The various threats were being tied down into a concept of how to proceed further. I think the major objective was to oust the Taliban, and the means was a military action followed by a local rebellion and after that to have some kind of U.N. intervention" -- much like what has happened since last October's military initiative began, Naik points out.

The Americans who attended the July meeting dispute Naik's account. Though Brisard and Dasquie chose not to look for them, all were easy to track down. They're all retired, often at home, and keen to talk. Stanford University passed on an e-mail address for Simons, who taught there last year. George Washington University's directory held the contact information for Inderfurth. Coldren is listed in the phone book.

They all insist no military threat was issued to the Taliban. And then they go on to qualify that, a little. They note that the U.S. had long maintained that a military response was likely if bin Laden was found to have masterminded the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole -- but there was no escalation of that existing threat. "The military threat, as I recall it, was absolutely confined to statements by people on our side that the U.S. government was still examining evidence with regard to the Cole and that if the government satisfied itself that Osama bin Laden was responsible, you could predict a military response almost with certainty," Simons says. "Nothing more was said in the meetings, and I was in all the meetings."

In the interviews he did last year, Naik argued that he knew the threat was a significant change in policy for the U.S. because the Americans offered specific details. A Sept. 22 story in the London-based Guardian, for instance, quoted Naik as saying that the attack would be launched "from very close proximity to Afghanistan." Brisard and Dasquie also quote a Sept. 18 BBC story in which Naik says that the Americans mentioned Tajikistan as the likely source of an attack.

Today Naik offers a few more specifics. He says that the discussion in question occurred on July 21; that the talk first occurred in the general meetings, but then continued after the group took a break, when Simons issued the "carpet of bombs" threat. He also argues that the discussion went on long enough to discuss not just the place where the attack would come from, but also the time.

"We asked them, when do you think you will attack Afghanistan?" Naik says, looking back. "And they said, before the snow falls in Kabul. That means September, October, something like that."

Simons opened a loophole for conspiracy theorists in November, when he conceded that a threat might have been issued outside the official meeting rooms, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde.

"It's possible that a mischievous American participant, after several drinks, may have thought it smart to evoke gold carpets and carpet bombs. Even Americans can't resist the temptation to be mischievous."

These days, Simons still concedes that alcohol may have played a role in the misunderstanding, noting that "it was possible that someone over-drank at night and said something more alarming."

When I note that "over-drinking" seems an odd way of conducting diplomacy, especially with the country that was harboring bin Laden, Simons insists he's been misunderstood.

"No, no, no," says Simons. "We were there for three nights; [drinking went on] before dinner, during informal talks before dinner. It's not carousing around Berlin. Pakistanis don't drink very much and we're old people. I'm in my 60s. We don't honk around town anymore."

In fact, Simons and the other Americans argue, the very fact that they are old, retired and out of the diplomatic loop makes them an unlikely choice for the transmission of a specific military threat like the one Naik describes. Since they didn't come in with Bush -- Inderfurth, a Clinton appointee, actually quit the day before Bush took office -- they lacked direct access to the decision makers who would put forth such an idea. Plus, Bush had other options. Administration officials were already planning to meet with Taliban representatives when the Berlin meetings occurred, and on Aug. 2, 2001, assistant secretary of state Christina Rocca did just that. Rocca did not return repeated calls for comment.

And with official channels already in use, Coldren argues, why would the White House bother using a bunch or retirees to announce an imminent military strike?

I keep pushing: Since the diplomats admit they discussed the possibility of a U.S. military reprisal for the Cole bombing, couldn't that, in some quarters, be construed as a threat? Simons says no, there was no mention of when the Cole investigation would finish, and thus no talk of when the military response would come. "There was not an escalation in the U.S. stance," Inderfurth insists. "There was no discussion about a strike plan. None of us would have been privy to such a plan."

Asked if there was any mention of a military threat, Coldren responded with gusto. "I was at that session and heard nothing along those lines," he says. "Nothing about when, nothing about where. Nothing about a threat. I would think it would have made our former Soviet officials stand up and pound the table -- that is, staging a military raid from Uzbekistan or Tajikistan." Coldren added in an e-mail: "I have not caveated my statements by saying 'nothing like that was said to my recollection .' I have a very good memory for what people say, even at such meetings. To have missed such a discussion I would have had to be totally dead to the world -- and I wasn't."

And yet Niaz Naik, even when confronted with all of these denials, refuses to budge. Could he have misinterpreted the extent of the threat? Could the Americans have been speaking without Bush approval? Naik dismisses all of these possibilities. He still insists that the Americans threatened the Taliban, per Bush's orders.

Brisard and Dasquie have a lot of faith in Naik's story. "Whether we rely on Naik's testimony or the former U.S. ambassador's [Simons], which doesn't necessarily contradict Naik's, one has to focus on the Pakistani representatives' knowledge regarding the statement," they write in "Forbidden Truth." "It is clear that in July 2001, a U.S. representative, speaking in an informal meeting, but mandated by their government to do so, in specific or general terms, whether mischievous or not, whether drunk or not, evoked the option of a military threat against Afghanistan."

Even now, Brisard believes that there's more than enough evidence to justify the assertion that a threat was made. While he and Dasquie admit to making several changes to the book -- largely downplaying their previous claim that there was a direct link between the July threat and the Sept. 11 attacks -- Brisard harbors no doubt about the threat. "We have material proofs, direct quotes from the participants [saying] that it happened, and that economic considerations were discussed," he says.

But other analysts insist Naik's comments must be seen in context. His agenda has to be understood within the shadowy world of Pakistani politics -- which no one seems entirely able to understand. Was he close to Pakistan Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI)? Was he exaggerating the U.S. threat to push his government away from supporting the Taliban? Or did he simply want attention?

Once again, it depends on whom you believe.

Shaheen Sehbai, former editor of The News, a large newspaper in Pakistan, says that Naik "was known to be a career diplomat, a professional from a family full of brilliant people who rose to the top of their careers."

Ahmed Rashid, author of "The Taliban," calls him a "sober diplomat with a sound record who does not speak out much to the press."

Even the Americans generally agree that Naik is an unlikely liar. Coldren describes him as "a quintessential diplomat" and "a milquetoast." In September, Simons told the British Guardian: "I've known Naik and considered him a friend for years. He's an honorable diplomat."

Still, even many of those who respect Naik believe he somehow botched the message he was supposed to have received from the Americans. "Naik exaggerated the threat that was given to him in Berlin," says Ahmed Rashid, who believes Naik had his own unofficial, unsanctioned agenda: convincing his government of the danger of continuing to support the Taliban. Pakistan was one of the few countries to officially recognize the Taliban, which Naik felt was hurting his nation. So he exaggerated the U.S. military threat, the theory goes, because he wanted Pakistan to cut ties with the radical Muslim group. "He used it to try and frighten the army into changing policy," Rashid says. "The army had been favoring the Taliban; Naik wanted to emphasize that support could hurt the country."

This theory seems to be the most popular explanation for why Naik might have inflated the American threat. Simons says that when he asked friends and former colleagues why Naik would utter "an untruth," as he calls it, most offered the same response. "The supposition is that he was saying it in a good cause," Simons says. "In other words, he was trying to get his government to change policy."

Yet some observers of Pakistani politics insist that Naik speaks for the ISI, the Pakistani security agency whose leaders were close to the Taliban. "I have no reason to believe that he would make the wrong statement, but I have reason to believe that he would say what the government or ISI wanted him to say," says Sehbai, who recently launched a news Web site, the South Asia Tribune. There are problems with this theory; Rashid points out that Naik worked for Nawaz Sharif, a prime minister generally loathed by the intelligence services for his attempts to make peace with India.

Others say Naik has a history of exaggerating his role. "Naik is a typical Pakistani thrown to exaggeration and duplicity," says Mansour Ijaz, a Pakistani-American businessman and freelance diplomat.

Ijaz says he crossed paths with Naik when discussions of the 2000 cease-fire were being discussed. "He carried some messages back and forth between Islamabad and Delhi and got himself into quite a bit of trouble for misrepresenting what both sides were saying at that time."

But Ijaz's critics say he's the one prone to exaggeration. Last fall, he made headlines with his claim that he'd brokered a deal with Sudan that would have delivered bin Laden to U.S. hands in 1996, if the Clinton administration hadn't rejected it. But the Clinton administration says there was no deal and that Ijaz never had a role in diplomatic discussions. Ijaz's claims, according to Clinton's National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, are "ludicrous and irresponsible."

Nonetheless, Oakley and other sources confirm that Naik ran into trouble for the way he characterized the ongoing talks between India and Pakistan in 1999 and 2000. At the time, he claimed that a deal between the longstanding enemies was imminent; Naik only had to show the right maps to Indian officials, who would then sign an agreement that would end to war over Kashmir. But soon after these claims hit the Pakistani press, critics refuted Naik's assertion. And of course, no such deal was ever inked. "He played up his role as an unofficial intermediary between Sharif and [Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari] Vajpayee," Oakley says. "He claimed they almost reached this agreement. But again, I think there was a lot of exaggeration. The Indians were nowhere close to reaching an agreement." Oakley believes Naik is no more believable now.

Ultimately, it may be impossible to know who is telling the truth about what happened in the July meetings. There were at least five other diplomats in Berlin, but they've all stayed silent. Attempts to contact them, through the U.N. and other means, have failed. Unless there is some kind of formal investigation, which Brisard and Dasquie call for in one of their revised paragraphs, the silent players will likely stay out of the fray. The battle between the Naik defenders and debunkers seems destined to continue.

Certainly the casual nature of the U.N. talks provides some fodder for those who've argued that the Bush administration failed to reckon adequately with Afghanistan and al-Qaida before Sept. 11. The country was harboring bin Laden, the world's most wanted terrorist, and yet the second-tier nature of the discussion participants -- self-described "retired old farts" who may or may not have gotten a little "mischievous" after a few drinks -- would seem to show that Afghanistan wasn't a front-burner issue for the Bush administration. (Last week's Time magazine story about how Bush passed up Clinton administration plans to take out bin Laden last year provides more evidence of that). Hindsight certainly indicates that it should have been a much higher priority.

But the left-wing conspiracy theories about the Berlin meeting at this point don't stand up under scrutiny. Most damning of that view is the fact that even Naik says the oil-and-gas pipeline -- the supposed motive for the Bush administration's renewed interest in the country -- never came up. Certainly there's plenty of reason to charge that Bush is beholden to big business, particularly big oil. And in many areas of policy, from energy to global warming, critics have more than enough evidence to prove their case. Not so with Afghanistan in the months before Sept. 11. The facts point to quite the opposite -- an acknowledgement by everyone involved that a pipeline through Afghanistan was a dead issue. There was never enough oil in the Caspian region to make it work, some observers say. Others, like Rashid, insist there was too much chaos to justify the installation of a pipeline that would be vulnerable to attack.

Conspiracy theorists may be heartened by the fact that in May, the government of Hamid Karzai inked a deal with the governments of Pakistan and Turkmenistan to build a pipeline between those two countries through Afghanistan. But as Ken Silverstein points out in the American Prospect, no company is clamoring for the right to build it, given the instability of the region as well as changes in the regional oil market.

And while it's possible that Naik is sincere, and that he heard talk of reprisals for the Cole bombing that he took as a military threat to the Taliban, it's still a huge leap to say that Sept. 11 was a preemptive strike triggered by such threats. Although Brisard has tried to soften that allegation, first in an interview with Salon, andthen in the revised English edition of "Forbidden Truth" -- his earlier assertion that the attacks were not just tragic but also "foreseeable" in light of the diplomats' alleged threats is the one that's gained widest circulation. Yet it fails to stand up under examination. Government officials have too much evidence showing that the Sept. 11 plot had been hatched and put in place before Naik and the other diplomats began meeting in Berlin. Vague threats from retired Track 2 diplomats, passed on through a Pakistani intermediary, wouldn't likely inspire such a colossal response, anyway. The fact that this theory hinges on only Naik's story, and a booze-related loophole left open by Simons, casts further doubt on its veracity.

It's possible the American diplomats are lying, of course. But for now no one has marshaled sufficient evidence to justify doubting their word. The "forbidden truth" about Bush, bin Laden and Afghanistan appears to be more obvious than conspiracy theorists claim: inattention to the Taliban-al-Qaida menace, not calculated threats, led to Sept. 11. This point alone should be enough to inspire outrage. But some on the left, like many on the right, seem unable to accept it.

By Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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