KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Dec. 10 (UPI) -- Arnaud de Borchgrave interviewed the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar Akhund on June 13, 2001, and this story was published the following day.
Any fatwa (Islamic holy decree) issued by Osama Bin Laden, America's most wanted alleged terrorist, declaring "jihad," or holy war, against the United States and ordering Muslims to kill Americans is "null and void," according to Taliban's supreme leader.
"Bin Laden is not entitled to issue fatwas as he did not complete the mandatory 12 years of Koranic studies to qualify for the position of mufti," said Mullah Mohammad Omar Akhund, known to every Afghan as amir-ul-mumineen (supreme leader of the faithful).
He also said the Islamic Emirate, as the Taliban regime calls itself, has "offered the United States and the United Nations to place international monitors to observe Osama pending the resolution of the case, but so far we have received no reply."
Omar, 41, is a soft-spoken man of very few words. He relies on Rahmatullah Hashimi, a 24-year-old multilingual "ambassador-at-large," rumored to be Afghanistan's next foreign minister, to translate and expand his short, staccato statements.
The one-eyed, 6-foot-6-inch, five-times wounded veteran of the war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s was also the architect of Taliban's victory over the multiple warring factions that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Sitting cross-legged on the carpeted mud floor of his Spartan adobe house on the west end of town, Omar's shrapnel-scarred face, topped by a black turban, shows no emotion as he answers in quick succession a military field telephone, walkie-talkies and a sideband radio.
"We're still fighting a war," he says impatiently, referring to Ahmed Shah Masud's guerrilla forces that still hold 10 percent of Afghan territory in the northeastern part of the country.
United Press International was accompanied by UPI consultant Ammar Turabi, a Pakistani-born American who is the son of one of Pakistan's Founding Fathers, Allamah Rasheed Turabi, widely respected in Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
Omar made clear to UPI that the Taliban regime would like to "resolve or dissolve" the bin Laden issue. In return, he expects the United States to establish a dialogue to work out an acceptable solution that would lead to "an easing and then lifting of U.N. sanctions that are strangling and killing the people of the Emirate."
The two issues are linked, both in Washington and in Kandahar. Kabul is the official capital of Afghanistan, but Kandahar, a sprawling, dust-choked city of 750,000, is the country's religious capital where Omar and his 10-man ruling Shura (council) have their headquarters.
According to U.S. intelligence reports, bin Laden has issued instructions, which his followers have described as fatwas. But Omar said, "Only muftis can issue fatwas."
Bin Laden "is not a mufti and therefore any fatwas he may have issued are illegal and null and void."
Omar's aides remind visitors that pictures are not allowed under Islamic law. There are no portraits of Omar on the streets or inside stores and houses. Omar himself travels in a Land Rover with dark windows.
The Afghan supreme leader also said bin Laden is not allowed any contact with the media or foreign government representatives. Bin Laden himself has sworn fealty to Omar in a statement published locally last April:
"Amir-ul-Mumineen is the ruler and legitimate amir who is ruling by the shariah of Allah," bin Laden wrote.
Afghanistan, according to Omar, has suggested to the United States (via the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan) and to the United Nations that international "monitors" keep bin Laden under observation pending a resolution of the case, "but so far we have received no reply."
Hashimi, in flawless English, added, "We also notified the United States we were putting bin Laden on trial last September for his alleged crimes and requested that relevant evidence be presented. The court sat for 30 days without any evidence being presented against him. It then extended its hearing for another 10 days to give the U.S. side time to act. But nothing materialized. Bin Laden, for his part, swore on the Koran he had nothing to do with those terrorist bombings and that he is not responsible for what others do who claim to know him. If others acted in his name, that does not make him the culprit. Moreover, the Koran forbids the taking of the lives of women, children and old people in strife, conflict and war."
Omar said the bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, which the U.S. says bin Laden ordered, are "criminal acts and the perpetrators are criminals and should be so judged."
Hashimi explained that the U.S. case against bin Laden was "based on a plea bargain, a concept unknown under Islamic law. Justice is black and white. Plea bargains pervert the very essence of justice."
On Tuesday, a New York court sentenced one Saudi Arabian to life in prison in connection with the embassy bomb attacks: three more men -- a Tanzanian, a U.S. citizen and a Jordanian -- have also been found guilty and are awaiting sentencing. All claimed to have been acting on orders from bin Laden.
Bin Laden was America's creation at the beginning of his career "and that was 16 years before Taliban came to power," Omar reminded UPI.
After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan Dec. 27, 1979, bin Laden worked closely with Saudi, Pakistani and U.S. intelligence services to recruit mujahedin -- islamic warriors -- from many Muslim countries. They became known as Arab Afghans.
Encouraged by the CIA's psychological warfare specialists, the Koran and the Islamic banner became the sword and the shield against atheist communism. After the mujahedin forced a Soviet withdrawal following nine years of bitter fighting, the United States closed down an operation that cost (shared 50/50 with Saudi Arabia) about $1 billion a year. Afghanistan, by then a war-ravaged country of 22 million with no working infrastructure, was left in the lurch by the earlier Bush administration.
Bin Laden's career took a new turn after Iraq invaded Kuwait and President George Bush hammered together a 29-nation coalition that moved 700,000 military personnel to the Gulf region and defeated Saddam Hussein's army.
Afghan officials in Pakistan, speaking not for attribution, said bin Laden remains convinced to this day that the United States "deliberately entrapped Saddam into invading Kuwait in order to occupy the region permanently and guarantee cheap oil from its corrupt Saudi puppets."
U.S. intelligence believes that throughout the 1990s, bin Laden painstakingly developed a global terrorist network whose backbone is made up of embittered Arab-Afghan veterans.
In March, Pakistan's leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf told UPI that by demonizing bin Laden, the United States had turned him into a cult figure among Muslim masses and "a hero among Islamist extremists." Since then, the U.S. State Department has decided to play down the importance of bin Laden. Omar clearly wishes to do the same. But politically, he cannot afford to deport him lest he arouse the wrath of his fellow extremists and risk his own political demise.
His trusted No. 2, Mullah Rabbani Muhammad, who was his liaison with financial backers in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, died of cancer last month.
Omar in effect confirmed his dilemma when he said, "U.S. and U.N. threats and sanctions cannot force us to expel Sheikh Osama or to abandon our Islamic methodology. He is a Muslim immigrant to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and a guest of the Afghan people, and to expel him or extradite him is contrary to Islam and Afghan tradition. Moreover, if the Islamic Emirate and the Afghan people were to alter their stance regarding Sheikh Osama, many problems would result."
Omar also said that bin Laden is "a hero of the war against the Soviet occupation of our country. He does not operate against anyone from the soil of Afghanistan. We requested that of him. We have his verbal and written pledge that he will abide by it in order that the relations between the Islamic Emirate with other nations are not affected."
Unspoken, but confirmed by several non-official Afghan sources, bin Laden's fortune, once reported to be about $300 million (he originally inherited $80 million from his late father, a Saudi construction tycoon), has been dissipated in largesse to the Taliban.
For Hashemi, "the fact is that the issue of bin Laden is just a pretext that America and the United Nations make use of to harm Afghanistan, which they falsely accuse of being a terrorist nation. If that were not the case, they would have provided the evidence or corroboration for their allegations against Osama."
The last of three proposals put forward by Afghanistan is in line with a similar idea suggested by Musharraf in his March interview with UPI: a panel of three distinguished Islamic scholars -- one each from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and a neutral Muslim country agreeable to the United States -- would examine the evidence presented by U.S. authorities. The third country most frequently mentioned is the United Arab Emirates.
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the only three countries that recognize Afghanistan's present government.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE secretly fund the Taliban government by paying Pakistan for its logistical support to Afghanistan.
Despite Pakistan's official denials, Taliban is entirely dependent on Pakistani aid. This was verified on the ground by UPI. Everything from bottled water to oil, gasoline and aviation fuel, and from telephone equipment to military supplies, comes from Pakistan, along the Quetta-Kandahar and Peshawar-Jalalabad roads. Until last month, the Afghan phone exchange was a Pakistani area code. Afghanistan now has its own area code (93) but many continue to use the more reliable Pakistani connection.
Asked about the U.N. decision to pull its political staff out of Kabul because of the Taliban's interference with its activities, Hashemi is instructed to respond: "The U.N. wanted to recruit 600 Afghan women to conduct field surveys. That would have been more personnel than any of our government ministries. An NGO would have become a GO, a government within a government, and we said no."
The questions that are most often asked were fielded by Hashemi, a highly intelligent high school dropout who toured the United States for six weeks earlier this year "battling feminists," as he put it. Omar feels these questions have been answered repeatedly in recent months:
--On the lack of schools for girls: "We don't even have enough schools for boys. Everything was destroyed in 20 years of fighting. The sooner U.N. sanctions are lifted, the sooner we can finish building schools for both boys and girls."
--On the treatment of women: ""You forget that America and the rest of the world are centuries ahead of us. If you introduced your manners and mores suddenly in Afghanistan, society would implode and anarchy would ensue. We don't interfere with what we consider your decadent lifestyle, so please refrain from interfering with ours. Do you tell your Saudi allies to change the status of women and adopt your lifestyle?"
--On the destruction of TV sets: "Try to imagine what would have happened in 18th or even 19th century America or Europe with the overnight introduction of television and all the sex that is now part of programs everywhere except Iran. We are not against television, but against the filth that pollutes the airwaves. What reaches us from the former Soviet republics on our northern border, relayed from Moscow, is sex and more sex. The only acceptable programs are broadcast from Iran. But there is no way of filtering out the others. And if we had our own official channel, no one would tune in if the others were available. Remember how the Soviet Union tried to break down our resistance just before its troops invaded us in 1979? They broadcast tapes of women in mini-skirts that were not even allowed in their country at that time."
--On distinctive patches to be worn by non-Muslims: "Everything we decide is immediately castigated as worthy of history's bloodthirsty dictators. This decision was designed to protect Hindus who kept complaining to us that they were being harassed by the religious police for not going to the mosque at prayer time."
Hashemi's explanation was confirmed in man-in-the-street interviews conducted by UPI's Pashto-speaking Pakistani security guard who blended easily into crowds with his regulation-length beard (one fist below the chin).
--On the destruction of the 1,500-year-old giant statues of Buddha last March: "It was an act of defiance against all those nations who cared more about our statues than about our people whose suffering has been compounded by cruel and heartless U.N. sanctions. I was in America when our decision was announced and called home to ask our leadership to reconsider. But I can see
why I was overruled."
Omar is a crack marksman who is credited with a number of Soviet tank kills during the Afghan jihad. He was wounded five times and lost his right eye to an exploding Soviet artillery shell that left two other shrapnel wounds on his right cheek and forehead. He turned down a Pakistani offer of an artificial eye. Taliban members say he is proud of having offered "this sacrifice to Allah for the sake of Islam."
Omar resumed fighting after the Soviet pullout because he found the victorious mujahideen militia to be "corrupt and immoral."
The son of a poor farmer's family, he dropped out of a mosque school in the seventh grade in Jowzjan, a province that shares common borders with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Like bin Laden, he is neither a mufti nor a mullah. Both titles are awarded to men who have completed 12 years of formal religious education in mosque seminaries.
Omar himself, his associates say, does not issue fatwas, only "farmans" that are rulings and orders. Full-fledged mullahs on his 10-man Shoora put fatwa suggestions forward and Omar has the final word. He was declared amir-ul-mumineen at a congregation of 1,500 mullahs in Kandahar in April 1996. They all pledged allegiance by kissing his hand.
Is Taliban popular? Hard to gauge. Their official members are an estimated 20 percent of the population. Kandahar's hustle and bustle has the almost identical appearance of any major town on the Pakistani side of the frontier provinces.
In Pakistan, the police carry sidearms. Not in Afghanistan.
Gen. Kamal Matinuddin, a Pakistani soldier diplomat and leading expert on Taliban, says in his recent book "The Taliban Phenomenon," the Taliban's sincerity, honesty and thorough devotion to their cause has been their main strength.
"Their ability to disarm the various militias and to maintain law and order, with a minimum of force, was their biggest achievement. Rough and ready justice, in accordance with Koranic injunctions, but mixed with Afghan traditions, and given out immediately without fear or favor, was appreciated by a people not accustomed to western laws. No talib (student) engaged in looting or forcible occupation of houses or doing anything for personal benefit, and this endeared them to the people."