- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 26, 2000


Osama bin Laden had dropped out of the headlines until recently. The bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa tied to the Saudi multimillionaire happened more than two years ago. The Taliban movement of religious students-turned-warriors which controls much of Afghanistan where bin Laden is based said they had clamped down on his ability to conduct operations in other countries.
That all changed in the past two weeks. U.S. forces in Bahrain and Qatar are now on the highest possible state of alert after the Pentagon learned of credible threats from associates of bin Laden. That alert comes in the aftermath of the bombing attack on the USS Cole in Aden, Yemen. As yet it is not exactly clear who organized the attack on the Cole, but indications suggest that groups linked to bin Laden, or at a minimum influenced by his rhetoric are behind the attack. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh said last week that members of the al Jihad group based in Afghanistan are suspects in the bombing. The leader of al Jihad, Ayman al Zawahiri, is bin Laden's second-in-command and U.S. prosecutors say al Jihad and bin Laden's al Qaeda organization effectively merged in 1998.
The choice of the USS Cole as a target in Yemen is also significant. Osama bin Laden's principal political aim is the expulsion of "infidel" American troops from the holy land of the Arabian peninsula, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Yemen. He has issued religious rulings to attack U.S. military targets in both of those countries, and in 1992 a hotel in Aden used by American servicemen transiting the Gulf was bombed by his organization. Four weeks ago al Jazeera, an Arabic network broadcast all over the Middle East, showed a tape of bin Laden and al Zawahiri in which al Zawahiri called for attacks on U.S. troops in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. According to al Jazeera, the tape was shot at least four months before it was broadcast. Nonetheless, it is part of a pattern of statements that bin Laden and his associates have made calling for attacks in Yemen.
Whatever bin Laden's role in the USS Cole bombing, in a little noticed development his patrons, the Taliban, may now be poised to take control of the whole of Afghanistan and that is good news for bin Laden and a global cast of Islamist militants who make Afghanistan their home.
Now, it seems a final Taliban victory may be in sight, which is worrying policy-makers from the Kremlin to the Potomac to New Delhi. In the past several weeks the Taliban have succeeded in capturing 95 percent or more of the country, winning significant victories against the forces of the alliance's military commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud. Mr. Massoud's supply lines from Tajikistan are now strangled, and over 100,000 refugees have fled Taliban-occupied territories, fearing the Taliban may again conduct a brutal campaign against civilians as they did in earlier offensives in 1999.
The next month will be critical for both sides, before winter snows halt fighting. According to Mr. Massoud's top aide, acting Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah, the situation is "serious." Mr. Massoud is generally acknowledged to have been the most effective military commander during the 1980s Afghan war against the Soviet Union, so one can be sure Dr. Abdullah isn't underestimating the problem. Mr. Massoud is a brilliant tactician who may still roll the Taliban back, but he is down to one operational helicopter.
A final Taliban victory may make Afghanistan even more of a pariah nation than it already is, a failed state that is a congenial home to drug mafias and Islamist militants who increasingly threaten the stability of Central Asia. Afghanistan is the training ground for militants from Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan who are waging campaigns against their own governments. Russia is concerned that a Taliban victory would enhance the capabilities of these militants and sent envoys last month to Pakistan to try and put some pressure on the Pakistani government which aids the Taliban. India is also concerned about a Taliban victory, as Kashmiri groups use Afghanistan as a base, particularly for heavy weapons training.
Pakistan is the only country with any leverage over the Taliban. As many as a third of the Taliban front line forces are students from Pakistani religious schools; fuel for their military operations must transit Pakistan, and I.S.I., Pakistan's military intelligence service, has advised and supported the religious warriors since 1994. However, Pakistan itself has become concerned in the past months about the militant training camps in Afghanistan because graduates of these camps are implicated in sectarian violence that has claimed hundreds of lives in Pakistan. In July Pakistan's military government asked the Taliban to close 18 camps. The Taliban closed two.
For the U.S. government, Taliban victory in Afghanistan will be a setback. The Taliban have in the past year or so lightened up somewhat on two of their signature policies banning women from jobs and girls from education. Modest opportunities for women to work and schooling for girls have opened up. If the Taliban win their war in the north, they may turn their attention back to the culture war and to their earlier policies of totally banning education for girls and work for women.
Secondly, the Taliban's opposition to the extradition of bin Laden on charges related to the U.S. embassy bombings in Africa will likely increase. Osama bin Laden is helping them in their northern offensive by supplying his highly motivated Arab fighters who prefer suicide to capture.
Finally, a Taliban victory will make Afghanistan even more attractive to members of the Islamist Internationale who travel there for military training and look to bin Laden for inspiration. It would turn Afghanistan into the modern world's first jihadist state.

Peter Bergen is writing a book about Osama bin Laden and the jihad movements for The Free Press.

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