When did the Taliban become our primary enemy, focus?

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Monday, November 5, 2001 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Did I miss something? A few weeks ago, the administration line was that the Taliban’s chief sin against us was its failure to surrender Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden himself was the mastermind behind the catastrophe we’ve reduced to the shorthand of 9-1-1. The Taliban had a simple choice: "cough him up," in President Bush’s inelegant phrase, or risk our military fury.

The Taliban, the radical Islamic militia that rules most of Afghanistan, didn’t cough him up, and the bombing began.

That much I understand. Where I get lost is that, at some unremarked time after the commencement of the air assault, the Taliban itself became our focus. Oh, we still want bin Laden, of course, but we want the Taliban, too.

The shift happened so subtly that I have found myself thinking that the Taliban was always a major player in the terrorist arena — and that we’d always known it. But I’ve been looking at hundreds of newspaper articles going back before the August 1998 bombing of the American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and I find virtually no mention of any suspicion of the Taliban as an exporter of terrorism.

That’s not to say that the reports have found anything good to say about the Taliban. It is described as awful to Afghan women, intolerant of even the slightest religious dissent and fanatical in its politics. It has moved against its own people, bombing them and at one point disrupting international food deliveries to starving Afghans. It has shown its religious intolerance by destroying pre-Islamic icons and arresting young Christian missionaries.

But the worst said about the Taliban in terms of international terrorism is that it harbored bin Laden, who we believed to be the evil (though absent) genius behind the embassy bombings and, now, the assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Bin Laden was the enemy. The Taliban simply harbored him.

But the impression of the past weeks is that we want the Taliban at least as badly as we want bin Laden. Certainly nothing in what we’ve said or done suggests that if we somehow get our hands on bin Laden we’ll cease the bombardment of Afghanistan, which, according to administration spokesmen, was pretty much empty of attractive targets.

There is, in this connection, another set of questions that won’t go out of my head. Suppose we do get bin Laden: What would we do with him? Charge him as a war criminal and bring him before the International Criminal Court? Charge him as an accessory to mass murder and bring him before a court in either New York or Virginia, site of the Pentagon attack? And what would be our response if either court reached the not-unreasonable conclusion that there was insufficient evidence to convict him?

I can’t believe we really want him, in our president’s phrase, "dead or alive." We need him dead. And let me confess here that his death — by murder, by collateral damage or by a bomb in his cave — would not distress me in the slightest.

Except for the very pettiness of it. The death — or the capture and imprisonment — of a single man, no matter what legend attends him, will simply not begin to bring closure for what happened to America on 9-1-1. I really think — at least I really fear — that that is what is behind our pounding of Afghanistan. Smashing a man won’t square the books; smashing a country might.

The truth, of course, is that smashing both bin Laden, the Taliban and the whole of pitiful Afghanistan won’t stop international terrorism, won’t make Americans any safer — no more than confiscating nailclippers at airports or disrupting the mail service will make us safer.

The administration knows that as well as the rest of us do. That being the case, isn’t it likely that the real reason for the continuing assaults on Afghanistan cum Taliban is approximately the same reason for shutting down much of the Postal Service: to give us the impression that our government, which clearly doesn’t know what to do, is at least doing something?

And if that’s not it, why are we trying to bomb Afghanistan just enough so that opposition Northern Alliance can finish the job? If the Taliban is the enemy as our leaders now suggest, why don’t we just bomb it to hell ourselves?

William Raspberry can be reached at The Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, DC 20071-9200 or willrasp@washpost.com.

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