BEN LADEN NETWORK AND TALEBAN ARE "AS ONE"
By Edward Luce, Mark Nicholson and Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad*
September 28 2001
Osama bin Laden's al-Qa’eda network is fully integrated within the Taleban regime in Afghanistan, making it impossible to launch a military assault on one without attacking the other, say senior international sources in Islamabad.
The officials say that al-Qa’eda effectively controls the Taleban's foreign and defence ministries in Kabul making a nonsense of attempts - most recently by a Pakistan delegation that visited Kandahar on Friday - to persuade the Taleban to hand over Mr bin Laden.
In addition, Mr bin Laden's network of so-called "Afghan Arabs" has in the past few days tightened its grip on the Taleban regime in the expectation of a clash with US-led forces. Al-Qa’eda's estimated 10,000-strong legion of mostly non-Afghan fighters is thought to be fully integrated within the Taleban's military structure.
Al-Qa’eda also bankrolls much of the Kabul regime's budget through private donations from mostly Saudi-based sympathisers. "Attacking Al-Qa’eda would not be a question of lancing a boil," said a senior international diplomat. "We're talking about removing the Taleban's lungs."
Officials point to a sharp rise in rhetoric from Kabul since September 11 aimed at rousing support for a wider Islamic jihad among potential supporters in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world. This reflected the fact that al-Qa’eda was effectively setting the agenda for the Taleban.
"You do not permit a 12,000-strong militia of foreign fighters if you're just intent on maintaining order in Afghanistan," said the diplomat.
However, while officials say that al- Qa’eda is taking increasing control of the Taleban regime, Kabul's authority is rapidly waning under the threat of international military action on the country. "The Taleban's control on Afghanistan is slipping," a retired Pakistan general in Islamabad, with extensive knowledge of Afghanistan.
Officials also suggest al-Qa’eda's highly visible role is deeply resented by many Afghans. This suggests the US could create a wider multi-ethnic coalition to replace the Taleban.
However, many warn that such a task would be extremely difficult considering the legacy of bitter and divisive civil war in Afghanistan, which ended when the Taleban came to power in the mid-1990s. The Taleban are largely drawn from one ethnic group.
"The narrowness of the Taleban's political base cannot be underestimated," said the official. "There is no visible popular support for this complex of Taleban and Osama bin Laden." By the same token, a US military operation that was perceived to be targeted at the Afghan people as a whole could lead to a surge of support for the Taleban, the official added.
On Friday night, it appeared unlikely the delegation of Pakistan Muslim clerics and senior intelligence officials would make any progress in persuading Mullah Omar, the Taleban's leader, to hand over Mr bin Laden.
A senior Pakistan official said the delegation's mission was more for domestic Pakistan political consumption, than any hope of securing Mr bin Laden's extradition. "We wanted our ulema (religious scholars) to understand that there's a deadlock on the ground," he said.
The Pakistani delegation was dispatched with the objective of bringing the Pakistan clergy, many of whom fiercely oppose Pakistan's support of the US, closer to the position of General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's military ruler. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation on Friday described the food shortages in Afghanistan as "very grave, with a large proportion of the population facing starvation". More than 7m people are expected to become dependent on international food aid, and the situation would worsen following any military action. ENDS BEN LADEN TALEBAN 29901
* Reproduced from Financial Times of London