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Inside Afghanistan

September 20, 2001 at 2:41 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Joining me are Barnett Rubin, Director of Studies at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University; he’s the author of several books about Afghanistan and Daniel Benjamin, who served on the National Security Council in the Clinton administration; he’s now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and he’s writing a book on the rise of religious terrorism.

Well, Daniel Benjamin, in content and in tone what do you make of the statement of the Islamic Council?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: Clearly, there was a tonal shift in their remark, but I think they understood what was at stake, and they understood that this was not an issue on which they could come back with a half-hearted response, so it reminds me very much of some of the responses we have heard from the Ulema by scholars in Afghanistan in the past on this issue.

I think that the tonal shift can be accounted for by saying that this is a group that understands that they face a terrible and perhaps even an existential threat to their country. And I think they’re trying to bargain for more time. But at the end of the day they’re not going to force Osama bin Laden out and, in fact, they don’t have the power to do so. At the end of the day it’s really only Mullah Omar who is the Emir, the leader of the Taliban, who has that power.

RAY SUAREZ: But at the same time as you say that it wasn’t a good move to come up with a halfhearted statement they did say in the text that Osama bin Laden can leave Afghanistan “at the proper time” and of his own free will..not exactly a hard line statement either.

Daniel BenjaminDANIEL BENJAMIN: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a hard line statement, but I would say that they’re trying to say something that will hand something to the U.S. but at the same time they have to know that they’re not really giving us anything serious. The formulation in the past has usually been that Osama bin Laden is free to come and go as he likes. Now he’s free to leave Afghanistan at a time of his choosing. It’s not a dramatic change.

RAY SUAREZ: Barnett Rubin, what do you make of the Ulema’s statement?

BARNETT RUBIN: First, the background to this is that the Taliban are subject to two conflicting pools. They’re a movement that originated in Afghanistan for Afghan purposes to try to confront the anarchy that existed in that country by imposing their extremely harsh version of Islamic law. People didn’t join the Taliban in order to defend international terrorists who had found harbor there under the aegis of the operation that we had sponsored along with other countries.

However, this close relationship grew up, and increasingly they have had to choose and now the choice is before them in a very stark way between whether they want to pursue their national goals in Afghanistan, or they want to be part of this internationalist setup, which wasn’t part of their original goals. They tried to find a compromise in their point of view, which of course is not satisfactory to us.

Barnett RubinThey reason legally–that’s what the Islamic scholars are–and therefore they believe that there’s a law given by God, the Sharia, which they have to interpret and enforce, and according to that law, they cannot force a Muslim no matter how guilty he may be to face trial by man-made false laws by non-Muslims. The most they can do in this case from a legal point of view, although ultimately the decision will be political, I’m sure, is to ask Osama voluntarily to take this upon himself. At the same time they are subject to tremendous pressures not only from U.S. threats but also by Pakistan, which is now very frightened for its own survival, and which has been the closest supporter and in many ways organizer of the Taliban over the years.

RAY SUAREZ: Along with the assurance that they were going to ask him to leave or at least ask Mullah Omar to approve this statement came as we heard in the Ian Williams report this idea that an attack by a powerful country on a weak country and an attack by non-Muslims on Muslims are both calls to struggle, to Jihad. What should we read into that?

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I think it’s very much like 1979 or the early ’80s all over again in the sense that they are summoning all the strength and all the assets that they have, and the strongest one they have is the solidarity of other Muslims.

In particular in Pakistan there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who see in the Taliban’s Afghanistan the embodiment of the Islamic state and actually something to aspire to. So they are playing to multiple audiences here as one can appreciate, and they are trying to lay out a marker for what will come if we were to take action. They do now that we remember the devastation of the ’80s and I think they are holding this out as a threat to us.

Barnett RubinBARNETT RUBIN: If I may say when they use the word Jihad, that is a word that has different meanings to different Muslims. For the kind of Islam that is prominent is Afghanistan the type of Jihad they are talking about is, as my colleague said, is essentially a defensive jihad.

They mean if the U.S. invades Afghanistan, they will fight back against it with everything at their command. They don’t mean they’ll come and try to do terrorist activities like destroying the World Trade Center. They’ll treat it as they said, in the way they did the Soviet invasion — unjustified as that might seem to us.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Barney Rubin, I would like you to further expand on Daniel Benjamin’s point. He noted that Pakistan may have domestic problems with Taliban that is on the mark. What about the other neighbors of Afghanistan — wouldn’t some of them be just as happy to see the current Afghanistan government fall?

BARNETT RUBIN: I believe that is true. All the neighbors of Afghanistan, other than Pakistan possibly excepting Turkmenistan, all those other neighbors, Iran first of all and then the Central Asian states feel very threatened by Taliban power there but the important thing is that it’s Pakistan which is far more deeply involved in Afghanistan, has far more ties.

And this really poses an existential issue for Pakistan because it has to find its national security and partly ideological terms and through its close ties to the Taliban over these past years which are linked to the struggle in Kashmir and other issues, which are very central to the Pakistani military’s definition of their national security. So this crisis is forcing them into an about face, which is hard for the military to swallow and carry out and hard for large segments of the population.

RAY SUAREZ: If Barnett Rubin, Osama bin Laden does as this clerical decree asks and chooses “another place to live,” is all this attention on one man really a correct way to look at this? I mean aren’t there still going to be thousands of Osama bin Laden fighters in various cells throughout the country if he leaves Afghanistan?

BARNETT RUBIN: I think that is an important point. To some extent we and the way the media focus always on this one-man play into this distortion.

First of all, I believe even in the formal request the U.S. has made, or the demands that it has made, it hasn’t only asked for Osama bin Laden but a number of other leaders of these Arab extremists inside Afghanistan. It’s estimated there are 3,000 to 5,000 of them. They are organized into fighting units, who are the most combative of the units that are now fighting along the Taliban inside Afghanistan.

And, of course, that is just one part of this network, which reaches throughout the world including several states in the United States. So not only would it just be forcing the departure of one man not meet the demands of the U.S. But also would be only quite a minimal step toward confronting the problem.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Benjamin.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I couldn’t agree more. First of all, one of the reasons why the Taliban is not likely to give up Osama bin Laden is precisely his dependence on those fighters that Barnett Rubin has spoken of. So that is a critical thing that people need to keep in mind. The other thing is that decapitation — removing the leadership of the network — the Jihadist network would disrupt operations, but in one way or another, they would be back in a matter of months and perhaps less than a year.

Daniel BenjaminThe operation that bin Laden has put together has a lot of different capacities — a lot of capabilities for regeneration — financial regeneration, operational, public relations even. And it’s a mistake to think that we can take care of this problem by taking care of bin Laden. We really should not over personalize this issue.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, a correspondent for a Pakistani newspaper said today, “I think Mullah Omar is a guest of bin Laden, not the other way around.” Who is really the power in that place? The clerics have handled their statement on to Mullah Omar. Is he going to rebuff it — welcome it? What are his options at this point?

BARNETT RUBIN: I think that — we tend to think of Afghanistan as if it were a state or a government and we want to know who has the power. But the fact is the institutions of statehood and government have been destroyed there over the past 20 years.

And what you have now is networks of armed people who receive aid from foreign countries and international networks from smuggling, and these networks of power and violence have various relationships with each other. So Mullah Omar has a network inside the country and that is also linked to networks in Pakistan.

He in turn is allied with now increasingly with these Arab and internationalist networks that we have kind of personalized in the name of Osama bin Laden. And they have developed a kind of mutual interest in sticking together.

Barnett RubinBut at the same time there are conflicts between them. It’s important for to us bear in mind what the conflicts are and in particular the extent to which the presence of those foreign extremists is against the interests of the Afghan people and is not something that most of the Taliban joined that movement in order to defend. So there definitely is the potential for pressure. There is potential for splits and for helping and for perhaps forcing some parts of the Taliban to ally with other Afghans who are opposed to the Taliban, who wish that Afghanistan had a different type of government, a more national government.

DANIEL BENJAMIN: I think it’s correct that there is a latent dislike of the Arab-Afghans or even an expressed dislike of what are called the Arab-Afghans, the non-Afghan Muslims who have come to Afghanistan to wage this broader Jihad, first of all to support the Taliban as it tries to conquer the rest of Afghanistan, the five to 20% that it doesn’t hold.

But at the same time, Taliban decision-making is focused right now on the person of Mullah Omar. He really has all the reins of power when it comes to issues like this. He is deeply in debt to bin Laden. It’s very hard to know how much he is calling the shots.

My own sense is that he looks at the fighters that he is getting from bin Laden and the resources that he is getting from bin Laden which are replacing resource that have dried up from either the Arabian Peninsula from aid organizations and he just says I cannot do without him.

RAY SUAREZ: Daniel Benjamin, Barnett Rubin, thank you both.