WASHINGTON - When George W
Bush rejected a Taliban offer to have Osama bin
Laden tried by a moderate group of Islamic states
in mid-October 2001, he gave up the only
opportunity the United States would have to end
Bin Laden's terrorist career for the next nine
The al-Qaeda leader was able to
escape into Pakistan a few weeks later because the
Bush administration had no military plan to
The last Taliban foreign
minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, offered at a
secret meeting in Islamabad on October 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 Inter Press Service (IPS) in an interview in
Kabul last year.
The OIC is a moderate,
Saudi-based organization 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
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
October 5 - two days before the US bombing of
Taliban targets began.
There had been
sketchy press reports at the time that the Taliban
foreign minister had made a new offer in Islamabad
to have Bin Laden tried by one or more foreign
countries. No Taliban or former Taliban official,
however, had provided details of what had actually
been proposed until Muttawakil's revelation.
Muttawakil, who was detained at Bagram
airbase for 18 months after the ouster of the
Taliban regime and now lives in Kabul with the
approval of the Hamid Karzai government, told IPS
he had also offered a second alternative - a
"special court" to try Bin Laden that Afghanistan
and two other Islamic governments would establish.
Muttawakil was believed by US officials to
have had the trust of Taliban leader Mullah Omar.
A December 1998 cable from the US Embassy in
Islamabad said he was "considered Omar's closest
adviser on political issues" and that he had
become Omar's "point man" on foreign affairs in
The new Taliban negotiating offer
came almost immediately after the US began bombing
Taliban targets on October 7, 2001. The fear of
the bombing - and what was likely to follow -
evidently spurred the Taliban leadership to be
more forthcoming on Bin Laden.
brusquely rejected any talks on the Taliban
proposal, declaring, "They must have not heard.
There's no negotiations."
the Taliban offer despite the fact that US
intelligence had picked up reports in the previous
months of deep divisions within the Taliban regime
over Bin Laden. It was because of those reports
that Bush had authorized secret meetings by a CIA
officer with a high-ranking Taliban official in
Former CIA director George
Tenet recalled in his memoirs that the CIA station
chief in Pakistan, Robert Grenier, met with Mullah
Osmani, the second ranking Taliban official, in
Balochistan province of Pakistan.
Grenier was only authorized to offer Osmani three
options: turning Bin Laden over to the United
States; letting the Americans find him on their
own; or a third option, as Tenet described it, to
"administer justice themselves, in a way that
clearly took him off the table".
rejected those three options, as well as a
subsequent proposal by Grenier on October 2 that
he oust Mullah Omar from power and publicly
announce on the radio that Bin Laden would be
handed over to the United States immediately.
On October 3, Bush publicly ruled out
negotiations with the Taliban. They had to "turn
over the al-Qaeda organization living in
Afghanistan and must destroy the terrorist camps",
he said, adding "There are no negotiations."
Milton Bearden, the former CIA station
chief in Pakistan during the Mujahideen war
against the Soviets, observed to the Washington
Post two weeks after Bush had rejected
Muttawakil's new offer that the Taliban needed a
face-saving way of resolving the issue consistent
with its Islamic values.
"We never heard
what they were trying to say," Bearden said.
The Bush refusal to negotiate with the
Taliban was in effect a free pass for Bin Laden
and his lieutenants because the Bush
administration had no plan of its own for
apprehending him in Afghanistan. It did not even
know what level of military effort would have been
required for the United States to be able to block
Bin Laden's exit routes from Afghanistan into
The absence of any military
planning to catch Bin Laden was a function of
Bush's national security team, led by vice
president Dick Cheney and secretary of defense
Donald Rumsfeld, which had firmly opposed any
military operation in Afghanistan that would have
had any possibility of catching Bin Laden and his
Rumsfeld and the
second-ranking official at the Pentagon, Paul
Wolfowitz, had dismissed CIA warnings of an
al-Qaeda terrorist attack against the United
States in the summer of 2001, and even after 9/11
had continued to question the CIA's conclusion
that Bin Laden and al-Qaeda were behind the
Cheney and Rumsfeld were
determined not to allow a focus on Bin Laden to
interfere with their plan for a US invasion of
Iraq to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime.
Even after Bush decided in favor of an
Afghan campaign, Tommy Franks, commander of the US
Central Command and responsible for the war in
Afghanistan, was not directed to have a plan for
Bin Laden's capture or to block his escape to
When the CIA received
intelligence on November 12, 2001, that Bin Laden
had left Kandahar and was headed for a cave
complex in the Tora Bora Mountains close to the
Pakistani border, Franks had no assets in place to
do anything about it. He asked Lieutenant General
Paul T Mikolashek, commander of Army Central
Command (ARCENT), if he could provide a blocking
force between al-Qaeda and the Pakistani border,
according to Colonel David W Lamm, who was then
commander of ARCENT Kuwait.
But that was
impossible, because ARCENT had neither the troops
nor the strategic lift in Kuwait required to put
such a force in place.
Franks then had to
ask for Pakistani military help in blocking Bin
Laden's exit into Pakistan, as Rumsfeld told a
National Security Council meeting, according to
the meeting transcript in Bob Woodward's book
Bush at War.
But Rumsfeld and other
key advisers knew it would a charade, because Bin
Laden was a long-time ally of the Pakistani
intelligence service, the ISI, and the Pakistani
military was not about to help capture him.
Franks asked Pakistani president Pervez
Musharraf to deploy troops along the
Afghan-Pakistan border near Tora Bora, and
Musharraf agreed to redeploy 60,000 troops to the
area from the border with India, according to US
ambassador Wendy Chamberlin, who was present at
But the Musharraf said his
army would need airlift assistance from the United
States to carry out the redeployment. That would
have required an entire aviation brigade,
including hundreds of helicopters, and hundreds of
support troops to deliver that many combat troops
to the border region, according to Lamm.
Those were assets the US military did not
have in the theater.
Osama bin Laden had
been effectively guaranteed an exit to Pakistan by
a Bush policy that had rejected either diplomatic
or military means to do anything about him.
In an implicit acknowledgement that the
administration had not been seriously concerned
with apprehending Bin Laden, Bush declared in a
March 13, 2002, press conference that Bin Laden
was "a person who's now been marginalized", and
added, "You know, I just don't spend that much
time on him."
Gareth Porter is
an investigative historian and journalist
specializing in US national security policy. The
paperback edition of his latest book, Perils
of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to
War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.