Bin Laden 'is in charge of Taliban military machine'

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The Taliban is now so firmly under the thumb of Osama bin Laden and his Arab Afghan Legion that he has in effect taken over the running of its military machine, according to diplomats and former residents of Kabul with close knowledge of the regime.

Bound in a Faustian pact with the millionaire Saudi dissident, the Taliban has allowed itself to be dragged away from its early pious goals into committing horrendous massacres against Afghan civilians, and acting with ever-greater defiance against the West, says a long-term European resident of Kabul who left the capital two days before the terror attacks on America.

Now, as the huge Shura (council) of clerics gathers to debate how to respond to Pakistan's demand to hand over Mr bin Laden, the regime is confronting the consequences of that alliance.

The man sitting in front of me is a European, but with his thick, luxuriant beard and baggy knee-length shirt he would blend easily into an Afghan crowd. For years he has knocked around in the backstreets of Afghanistan, doing humanitarian work he does not want to be mentioned ­ because what he has to say now would prejudice his ability to carry on with it.

The man is bitter and angry about Afghanistan; bitter and angry that the Taliban, which in its early days had promised some kind of healing to a country pulverised by war, has ended up making matters far worse. Now, he says, "politically the Taliban is either a spent force or a nonentity. The Af-ghans are fed up ... [its] allies are just waiting for the chance to jump ship."

The reason the Taliban has fallen so far, simply, is Osama bin Laden. There is now a growing conviction among Afghan-watchers that he is the power behind the throne. The ostensible supreme leader of the militia is the one-eyed Mullah Mohammad Omar. All important decisions are referred up to him, and his word is law. As the Taliban clerics debated yesterday on the conditions under which they might be prepared to hand over Mr bin Laden to foreign justice, whichever way they decide, Mullah Omar will have the last word.

But increasingly Afghan experts believe Mullah Omar is controlled by Mr bin Laden. "His signature and Omar's signature are interchangeable," another Islamabad-based European diplomat said. "This could only happen in an autocratic system, where one man holds total power. Whoever controls him, controls the movement," the diplomat said.

Mullah Omar told an interviewer in 1995: "We took up arms ... to save our people from further suffering. We had complete faith in God Almighty. We never forgot that. He can bless us with victory or plunge us into defeat."

When the Taliban sprang up in 1994, it quickly gained a reputation as a band of Islamic Robin Hoods: punishing rapists, opening roads, disarming bandits. It won the support of the people because it did not appear motivated by greed. One reason for that was that it did not need to worry about money: Pakistan's military intelligence agency, the ISI, seeking a stable solution to the nagging Afghan problem, had decided it was a good bet.

Arabs and other foreign Muslims ­ 35,000, from 43 countries ­ had fought alongside Afghanistan's indigenous mujahedin during the war to expel the Russian invaders, from 1982 onwards. The idea of bringing them in was Pakistan's but the CIA was happy to bankroll the operation, as well as supplying hundreds of Stinger missiles.

The Arab militants, however, were deeply disliked by many Afghans from the outset: the latter's liberal Sufi traditions clashed violently with the puritanical ideas of the Saudis. But the Arabs had Mr bin Laden's millions, and they also had big ideas ­ far grander than the homely Taliban notions of justice and peace.

In 1996 Mr bin Laden had 1,000 non-Afghan militants under training in his camps in Afghanistan. In September of that year the Taliban captured Kabul, a crucial step towards controlling the whole country. Mr bin Laden and Mullah Omar were introduced for the first time and hit it off. Mr bin Laden sent several hundred of his Arab fighters to bolster the Taliban in the battles for the north.

Around this time, as the Arabs made their influence felt, the Taliban story turns very dark. In August 1998 the Taliban returned to the northern city of Mazar-I-Sharif, where it had been humiliated one year before. On 8 August, when the ammunition of the Shia Hazara force defending the city ran out, the Taliban roared through the town in its pick-up trucks ­ shooting everyone in sight, women and children as well as men. "Soon the streets were covered with dead bodies," said an eye- witness. "No one was allowed to bury the corpses for six days."

Worse was to come. Prisoners were crammed into containers outside the city, locked in and left to suffocate. Three hundred died in one container, from which there were three survivors.

At exactly the same time, Mr bin Laden's men bombed American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. It was as if there was a competition as to which part of the bin Laden empire could cause the greater carnage. Mr bin Laden's notorious manifesto of February 1998, declaring war on all "Jews and Crusaders", was finally coming to pass.

The fatal results of the Taliban's alliance with Mr bin Laden and the Arabs were now coming through, according to the former Kabul resident. "I think the Taliban are doomed, they have made no attempt to win the support of the Afghan people. They have become involved in bin Laden's ideological, utopian project of remaking the Muslim world, and the views of the Afghan people are irrelevant.

"We've heard of growing unease in the Taliban about the influence of the Arab foreign legion ­ lots of stories of Arab misbehaviour. They have been taken over by his grandiose project of rebuilding the Islamic world.

"When I came out of Afghan last, on the Sunday before last Tuesday's attacks, the immigration officer, a Taliban, took me to one side and said, 'I would take off my turban and place it at the feet of Kofi Annan and beg him to intervene'." But the outside world, which bears so much blame, was no longer interested. Until now.