- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 4, 2001

The United States must eliminate Afghanistan's ruling Taliban regime if it wants to destroy the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and his global terrorist network, a panel of counterterrorism analysts told a House hearing yesterday.
While the Bush administration has stopped short publicly of demanding an end to the Taliban's rule, private analysts said the ties between the fundamentalist Muslim regime and bin Laden are too broad and deep to be separated. Bin Laden is the prime suspect in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
"Any effort to remove bin Laden means the removal of the Taliban and of [Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammed] Omar as well," said Vincent Cannistraro, former chief of counterterrorism operations at the CIA, to the House International Relations Committee.
"It is clear that without the Taliban, bin Laden could not exist," Mr. Cannistraro said.
Charles Santos, former top U.N. adviser on Afghanistan, said the Taliban regime, which enforces a strict version of Sunni Muslim practice, has become a symbol and safe haven for radical Islamic groups around the world.
"The Taliban have become an integral and important part of Sunni fundamentalist mythology and its international networks, connecting them well beyond Afghanistan to Islamists in Pakistan, the [Persian] Gulf, Kashmir, Chechnya and Central Asia," Mr. Santos said.
Mullah Omar and the leading Taliban clerics contend that the Saudi-born bin Laden is in their country as a guest and have so far said that they will not turn him over to the United States until they are given proof of his involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Osama bin Laden "is neither a guest nor a foreigner in Afghanistan," said Mr. Santos, who helped oversee the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s. "He is one of them, ideologically, politically and pragmatically."
Bin Laden's al Qaeda organization is reported to have support groups in some 60 countries, including the United States. But the counterterrorism experts told lawmakers that Afghanistan under the Taliban is the logistical, training and financing base for the bin Laden operation.
While massing American forces on Afghanistan's border and applying intense diplomatic pressure on the Taliban, senior U.S. officials have consistently stopped short of listing the removal of the Taliban regime as a goal of the anti-terrorism campaign.
U.S. officials have tried to enlist Pakistan with long-standing ties to the Taliban in its campaign against bin Laden, and also hopes to avoid a negative reaction in the Arab world to any planned military strike.
An Afghan policy statement, issued last week by the State Department and National Security Council, said that while the Bush administration supports a variety of anti-Taliban groups who oppose terrorism, "We do not want to choose who rules Afghanistan."
But the U.S. government has stepped up its contacts with the Northern Alliance, a coalition of opposition Afghan groups that has been fighting the Taliban.
Abdullah Abdullah, the Northern Alliance's foreign minister, revealed yesterday that alliance leaders have discussed coordinated military action directly with U.S. officials in recent days.
"We discussed every aspect of the current situation and the prospect of cooperation," Mr. Abdullah told a news conference in a section of Afghanistan controlled by the opposition alliance.
U.S. officials have also directly approached Mohammed Zahir Shah, the 86-year-old former king of Afghanistan now living in exile in Rome, including an imminent visit by State Department policy planning chief Richard Haass, the highest ranking official to meet the king yet. The ex-monarch has become an increasingly popular choice among policy-makers as a unifying figure for a post-Taliban government.
"We support the idea of a broad-based government in Afghanistan," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday. "We are certainly interested in his ideas."
Mr. Santos said the U.S. government should focus not only on eliminating the Taliban, but on helping shape a new federal, decentralized government in Kabul that respects the country's complex mix of ethnic groups.
Several lawmakers yesterday came out in strong support of a U.S. campaign to eliminate not just bin Laden but the Taliban regime as well.
"The Taliban have chosen to side with the terrorists and, in doing so, have chosen to share their fate," said California Rep. Tom Lantos, the committee's senior Democrat.
Added Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican: "If the Taliban remain in power, it would be a horrible signal to any government in the world that harbors this kind of terrorism. The Taliban must go, and bin Laden must die."

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