Taliban figure asks bombing halt to make deal on Bin Laden

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October 16, 2001


Taliban Figure Asks Bombing Halt to Make Deal on bin Laden


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, Oct. 15 At secret talks in Pakistan today, a senior Taliban leader appealed for an American bombing pause in Afghanistan while moderates in the Taliban government sought to persuade the supreme Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, to agree to a formula for the handover of Osama bin Laden, officials in Pakistan disclosed tonight.

The talks between Mullah Abdul Wakil Muttawakil, the Taliban's foreign minister, and senior Pakistani officials were held as Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrived for a one-day visit here. The presence of Mullah Muttawakil, apparently without the approval of Mullah Omar, suggested that intensive American bombing, now entering its 10th day, has caused a policy split in the Taliban leadership.

The Afghan official's plea for a bombing pause was relayed tonight to Secretary Powell, Pakistani officials said. Upon arrival here, the secretary of state went almost immediately to a two-hour dinner at the American ambassador's residence with Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf.

The account of the secret contacts came after reports circulated in Pakistan all day that Mullah Muttawakil had defected, and might not be returning to Afghanistan. Although Pakistani officials would not confirm that, they said his presence in Pakistan, and his call for a bombing pause, reflected a severe split developing in the ranks of senior Taliban officials as the impact of the bombing deepened.

In his talks in Islamabad, the Taliban envoy suggested that the moderate Taliban camp he represents might be able to turn Taliban policy around if it had a period of calm, without American bombing, to rally other Taliban officials.

But after the talks here, it was not clear if the moderates intended to openly challenge Mullah Omar, who has steadfastly refused to hand over Mr. bin Laden, or if their proposal was part of an attempt to confuse the situation and get the bombing stopped without any definite progress on Mr. Bin Laden.

Other reports indicated that Mullah Muttawakil's initiative had reached beyond Pakistan to the Arab states in the Persian Gulf. A report by a pro-government news agency in the gulf state of Dubai said that Mullah Muttwakil had "shown interest in securing the support of Muslim states" in the region to intercede with the United States on behalf of the Taliban. But Pakistan officials said another report, that Mullah Muttawakil had left Pakistan and defected to Dubai, appeared to be premature.

Secretary Powell's arrival completed an extraordinary gathering here of almost all the main players in the crisis that began with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Their presence reflects a pressing need to define the political and diplomatic policy behind the bombing. At present no agreement exists on what sort of government might come to power if the radical Islamic Taliban were ousted. Ending the Taliban government has become a clear American war objective, but Pakistan opposes replacing it with the main rebel group, the Northern Alliance.

Officials in Pakistan said tonight that they hoped Secretary Powell's visit here might "compress" the political process, accelerating steps to form a post-Taliban government, and therefore clearing the way for American military commanders to pound Taliban front-line troops into disarray, defection or disintegration.

In addition to Secretary Powell and General Musharraf, a crucial ally of Washington's because of Pakistan's 1,400-mile border with Afghanistan, the cast gathered included Mullah Muttawakil, representatives of at least one faction of the Northern Alliance that has fought a protracted civil war with the Taliban, and a delegation representing the former Afghan king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who now lives in Rome.

Whether the secret intrigue and high-level diplomacy would move the crisis closer to a resolution remained highly doubtful, American and Pakistani officials said. One reason is that President Bush has said repeatedly that he will not negotiate, or even discuss, terms for the handover of Mr. bin Laden, who has been identified by the United States, along with his Al Qaeda terrorist organization, as the "prime suspect" in the Sept. 11 attacks. A bombing pause, even one that allowed moderates to argue for Mr. bin Laden's handover, could be seen as compromise or weakness by the United States, those officials said.

Beyond that, the officials said, there were major reasons to doubt whether Mullah Muttawakil could shift Mullah Omar on the issue of handing over Mr. bin Laden, even assuming that the plea for a bombing pause was sincere. Although Mullah Muttawakil, in his 30's, has long been considered one of the more worldly of the Islamic clerics who control the Taliban, specialists on the Taliban said he is not in Mullah Omar's inner circle of a half-dozen or so clerics, most of whom make their headquarters in the southern city of Kandahar. Mullah Muttawakil, although a Kandahari, oversees the foreign ministry from Kabul, the capital, 300 miles to the northeast.

It is not clear that even Mullah Omar or a successor as leader of the Taliban could hand over Mr. bin Laden if they decided to try. The Saudi-born dissident has hundreds and possibly thousands of well- trained Arab fighters under his control inside Afghanistan, and, American officials believe, numerous, as yet unknown hideouts in Afghanistan's mountains. The Taliban have a core of hardened fighters who would likely continue to protect Mr. bin Laden even if ordered to seize him and hand him over.

Pakistan kept the visit of Mullah Muttawakil secret, but the officials who disclosed his presence said General Musharraf himself had passed on the call for a bombing pause to Mr. Powell. They added that Pakistan's military ruler had not thrown his "full weight" behind the proposal because of President Bush's oft-repeated opposition to any negotiation over the demand for the surrender of Mr. bin Laden and others in Al Qaeda.

From the outset of the crisis, the Musharraf government, although sympathetic to the Taliban, has had its eye firmly fixed on the chance to revive Pakistan's traditional but recently frayed relationship with the United States, with all the economic, political and military benefits that would bestow.

Against this desire for a rapprochement with the United States, the military government has had to weigh the fact of extensive local support for the Taliban and anger at the bombing of a Muslim country. For those reasons, General Musharraf has made clear that he favors an early end to the bombing. The longer it goes on, the harder the domestic upheaval may be to control.

Officials familiar with the secret talks said that Mullah Muttawakil had met for 90 minutes earlier today with the head of Pakistan's military intelligence directorate, Lt. Gen. Ehsan ul-Haq. The Afghan official argued that a bombing pause of at least two or three days was necessary if the Taliban moderates, mostly based in Kabul, were to be able to reach Kandahar.

Mullah Omar and most members of the Taliban's ruling council, or shura, are based in Kandahar, or were until Mullah Omar narrowly escaped a bombing raid that destroyed his home and reportedly killed at least two members of his family in the first night of the American attacks on Oct. 7.

Since the Taliban seized power in Kabul in 1996, there have been many signs that the Islamic clerics who hold senior government posts in the capital are more moderate, or more worldly, than the clerics who form Mullah Omar's secluded inner circle in Kandahar.

The officials said Mullah Muttawakil had told General Ehsan , the Pakistani intelligence chief, that the American bombing had cut all communications between Kabul and Kandahar, and made driving or flying by helicopter between the two cities too dangerous. Accounts of the bombing raids have suggested that American reconnaissance planes, including unmanned drones flying at low level, have picked up convoys of Taliban officials moving by road, exposing them to air attacks.

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), October 16, 2001


DJ White House/Taliban -2: Says Taliban Had Enough Time

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)--The Bush administration rejected Tuesday a call from some members of the Taliban for a pause in the bombing campaign in Afghanistan to give them time to talk to the Taliban leadership about turning over Osama bin Laden.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer reiterated the administration's viewpoint that it won't negotiate with the Taliban.

"He (President George W. Bush) has said there will be no negotiations. The military campaign remains underway," Fleischer said.

"The president is not pursuing such a course because he does not think it would be constructive. The president has given the Taliban government ample time to respond. The president made it perfectly plain about what actions the Taliban needed to take in order to avoid the fate that they have chosen for themselves. They had plenty of time; they chose not to act," Fleischer added.

On Monday, the Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Abdul Wakil Muttawakil told Pakistani officials that he wanted a pause in the bombing campaign to try to convince Taliban leaders it was now time to turn over bin Laden. The foreign minister portrayed himself as a moderate member of the Taliban while Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was a hardliner.

-By Alex Keto, Dow Jones Newswires; 202 -862 -9256; Alex.Keto@dowjones.com

(END) DOW JONES NEWS 10 -16 -01 01:23 PM

-- PHO (owennos@bigfoot.com), October 16, 2001.

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