Just because a Supreme Leader of a hostile government has contact with a US government official doesn’t mean everything will change. Historically, we have seen this in our past and things haven’t turned out how we thought they would. Though it can be better to be speaking to an enemy than just threatening one. One can be hopeful, but actions always speak louder than words.
On August 21, 1998, a supporter of the Taliban asked Michael Malinowski, the Director of the Office for Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh at the State Department if he was willing to communicate with one of the Taliban’s top leader. Malinowski stated he was always open to such communication if it was serious.
Profound changes were being undertaken during that period by the supreme leader of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar and the Taliban. In July 1998, the Taliban closed all foreign NGOs in Afghanistan which resulted in food distribution and aid disappearing. On August 7, 1998, Al Qaeda attacked two US Embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya. Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda had been given sanctuary by Mullah Omar. Then on August 8, 1998, the Taliban captured the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. Immediately the Hazaras were brutally singled out and according to Human Rights Watch over 2,000 individuals were indiscriminately killed by the Taliban fighters.
On August 22, 1998, Malinowski in the early morning was connected to a conference call with Taliban Headquarters in Kandahar. Mullah Omar came on the conference call and interacted with a representative of the United States for the first time. Malinowski spoke of the threat posed by Bin Laden and the continued presence of Bin Laden in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar replied that he was open to dialogue. Malinowski suggested that open telephone lines were inappropriate and stated that it would be best if representatives meet in person. Mullah Omar suggested that the US could engage with the Taliban’s representatives in Islamabad, Pakistan.
One of the most comical things was that the supreme leader of the Taliban suggested that Congress should force President Clinton to resign. Omar warned that US strikes would be counterproductive and rally the Islamic world to Afghanistan’s side. Malinowski urged Mullah Omar to take Bin Laden in custody or expel him from Afghanistan. Malinowski cable drafted after the interaction with Mullah Omar ends with “this is a long way, however, from the Taliban doing the right thing on Bin Laden. We are still a long way from getting North Korea, Iran, and even the Taliban from doing the right thing. Mullah Omar had numerous opportunities to give up Bin Laden but continued to take a hardline stance that Bin Laden should not be expelled or extradited.
Last week the current leader of the Taliban Hibatullah Akhundzada called for direct talks with the United States to end the fighting. The Taliban still doesn’t want to negotiate with the Afghan government. Akhundzada said in a statement that “If the American officials truly believe in a peaceful end to the Afghan imbroglio, then they must directly present themselves to the negotiation table so that this tragedy the destructive effects of which mainly harm the American and Afghan people can be resolved through talks. . ..” It is almost as if the current leader of the Taliban doesn’t know why the Americans invaded Afghanistan. Early in his career, Akhundzada was a member of the notorious Promotion of Virtue and Prevention Police in Farah Province. He returned to Kandahar to take a position as a religious instructor at the Jihadi Madrasa where he had numerous interactions with Mullah Omar. He was then appointed Chief Justice of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’s Shariah Courts. In 2015, Akhundzada was appointed Deputy Commander of the Taliban. Then on May 25, 2016, the United States targeted and killed Mullah Akhtar Mansour, the Supreme Leader of the Taliban. Akhundzada was elevated to lead the Taliban and Sirijuddin Haqqani and Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, who is Mullah Omar’s son. These three are not going to be easy to negotiate with and will instead stake out their hardline position. Communications is just one of many steps on a much longer journey. And as President Reagan once said, “trust but verify.”