Three years ago, on 4 October 2001, Tony Blair presented a dossier to the House of Commons to justify war on Afghanistan. The dossier concluded (although little evidence was available) that, “The attacks of the 11 September 2001 were planned and carried out by Al Qaida, an organisation whose head is Usama Bin Laden… The attack could not have occurred without the alliance between the Taleban and Usama Bin Laden, which allowed Bin Laden to operate freely in Afghanistan, promoting, planning and executing terrorist activity.”
Bronwen Maddox, Foreign Editor of The Times, found “so many puzzling omissions” that the dossier began to “undermine itself”, with “few clues even to the form of evidence for September 11: almost nothing on money or phone records”. It seemed “lame - to the point of advertising a deficiency - to say that a signature of an al-Qaeda attack is the absence of a warning”. (Times, 5 October 2001, p. 8)
Eminent lawyers consulted by the Independent on Sunday (7 October, p. 7) and the Telegraph (5 October 2001, p. 6) doubted that the dossier would support an indictment for murder against bin Laden. Anthony Scrivener QC: “it is a sobering thought that better evidence is required to prosecute a shoplifter than is needed to commence a world war.” (Times, 5 October 2001, p. 7)
Nevertheless, the Prime Minister said in the House of Commons that the case was proven, and war would follow: “there is no alternative unless the Taliban regime do what they have so far obviously failed to do and yield up bin Laden”. (Hansard, 4 October 2001 col 678)
Almost at the moment of this assertion, the Daily Telegraph carried an extraordinary story under the heading “Pakistan halts secret plan for bin Laden trial”, a story which completely undermined Blair’s case for war. (Telegraph, 4 October, p. 9)*
According to this report, leaders of two Pakistani Islamic parties, the Jamaat-i-Islami and the Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam, negotiated bin Laden’s extradition to Pakistan to stand trial for the 11 September attacks. Under the conditions of the agreement, bin Laden would have been held under house arrest in Peshawar, and then tried.
The first stage of the negotiations was carried out in Islamabad in Pakistan, on Sat. 29 September, when Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, the Taliban Ambassador to Pakistan, met with Qazi Hussain Ahmad, leader of the Jamaat-i-Islami, and Hamid Gul, a former director of Pakistan’s powerful Inter Service Intelligence agency.
The final stage of the negotiations was in Kandahar, on Mon. 1 October, when Qazi, and Maaulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamaat Ulema-e-Islam, met Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar.
“The proposal, which had bin Laden’s approval, was that within the framework of Islamic shar’ia law evidence of his alleged involvement in the New York and Washington attacks would be placed before an international tribunal. The court would decide whether to try him on the spot or hand him over to America’s, reported the Telegraph.
There had been earlier indications from the Taliban that it was willing to extradite its troublesome guest. There were three striking features of this report. Firstly, extradition was not only possible, it had actually been agreed. Secondly, the deal is said to have had “bin Laden’s approval”. Finally, breaking with earlier offers from the Taliban, it was stated that extradition to the United States (previously anathema) would have been a real possibility.
Why did the deal not go ahead? Despite being agreed by Mullah Omar, head of the Taliban, the extradition was apparently vetoed by Pakistan’s President Musharraf, on the grounds that he, Musharraf, “could not guarantee bin Laden’s safety”. An implausible suggestion.
Intriguingly, according to the Telegraph, the US Ambassador to Pakistan, Wendy Chamberlain, knew of the deal all along.
A US official had earlier suggested that “casting the objectives too narrowly would risk a premature collapse of the international effort if by some lucky chance Mr bin Laden were captured”. (FT, 20 September 2001, p. 7) It may be that a US veto killed the deal.
If bin Laden’s extradition had truly been the key goal in Washington and London in the aftermath of 9/11, Blair and Bush would have praised this opening, publicized it, sought to support it with inducements. Instead, we had only silence. This was consistent with the rebuffs delivered to every Taliban overture.
The Taliban Information Minister, Qudrutullah Jamal, said a week after 11 September, “Anyone who is responsible for this act, Osama or not, we will not side with him. We told [the Pakistan delegation] to give us proof that he did it, because without that how can we give him up?” (Independent, 19 September 2001, p. 1)
Until 1 October 2001, the Taliban refused to to “hand over Osama bin Laden without evidence” (Taliban Ambassador Mullah Zaeef, Times, 22 September, p. 1, emphasis added). On 1 October, they agreed to bin Laden’s extradition to Pakistan without evidence of his guilt.
The US consistently brushed aside such opportunities for a nonviolent solution. Ari Fleischer, White House spokesperson said repeatedly that there would be “no negotiations, no discussions” with the Taliban. (Telegraph, 22 September, p. 1)
This story blows an enormous hole in the government’s rationale for war. The British and US people were told that we were being forced to go to war because the Taliban had refused point-blank to hand over bin Laden. The Telegraph story revealed, however, that in fact the Taliban, far from refusing to contemplate extradition, had agreed to hand over bin Laden for trial, possibly in the US.
There were three central legal and moral questions: What was the evidence against bin Laden? If there was evidence, were there nonviolent methods of securing him for trial? Was the force used by the US and British governments legal? Whatever one thinks of the “evidence” against bin Laden presented in October 2001, the fact of the matter is that there was a nonviolent alternative to war - and it was rejected not by the Taliban regime, but by Britain and the US.
The alternative was to negotiate extradition. Negotiation of international conflicts is a duty under Article 33 of the UN Charter.
Professor Robin Therkauf, a lecturer in the political science department at Yale University, lost her husband Tom in the World Trade Centre on 11 September. In the days before 4 October, Professor Theurkauf wrote,
“What we need less of is war rhetoric and war against Afghanistan in particular, and to explore the possibility of a judicial solution. In the short term, the first priority should be to hunt down and arrest the criminals with the goal of achieving justice, not revenge. This is a task left not to the military but to investigative police forces, who can prepare for a trial.”
This was not a utopian dream, but entirely realistic, in the light of the Telegraph report.
In a BBC radio interview, Professor Theurkauf said, “The last thing I wanted was for more widows and fatherless children to be created in my name. It would only produce a backlash. As the victim of violence, I’d never want this to happen to another woman again.” (Quotes taken from Radio 4, 2 October, and The Friend, 28 September)
President Bush said of the Taliban, “I gave them a fair chance.” (Times, 8 October 2001, p. 2) In fact, Bush and Blair rejected negotiations and nonviolent alternatives to war, supported by the mass media.
This is worth remembering as Afghanistan limps towards an opium-soaked, warlord-ridden, US-style “democracy”.
What about Afghan women? “In parts of Afghanistan, women have stated that the insecurity and the risk of sexual violence they face make their lives worse than during the Taleban era”. (Amnesty International, October 2003)
The US has “failed, misguided and betrayed Afghan women by giving them false hope,” says T. Kumar, an Amnesty International advocacy director for Asia and the Pacific. (22 September 2004)