Over three years and on as many continents, U.S. officials met in public and secret at least 20 times with Taliban representatives to discuss ways the regime could bring suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden to justice.
Talks continued until just days before the Sept. 11 attacks, and Taliban representatives repeatedly suggested they would hand over bin Laden if their conditions were met, sources close to the discussions said.
Throughout the years, however, State Department officials refused to soften their demand that bin Laden face trial in the U.S. justice system. It also remained murky whether the Taliban envoys, representing at least one division of the fractious Islamic movement, could actually deliver on their promises.
The exchanges lie at the heart of a long and largely untold history of diplomatic efforts between the State Department and Afghanistan's ruling regime that paralleled covert CIA actions to take bin Laden. In the end, both diplomatic and covert efforts proved fruitless.
In interviews, U.S. participants and sources close to the Taliban discussed the exchanges in detail and debated whether the State Department should have been more flexible in its hard-line stance. Earlier this month, President Bush summarily rejected another Taliban offer to give up bin Laden to a neutral third country. "We know he's guilty. Turn him over," Bush said.
Some Afghan experts argue that throughout the negotiations, the United States never recognized the Taliban need for aabroh, the Pashtu word for "face-saving formula." Officials never found a way to ease the Taliban's fear of embarrassment if it turned over a fellow Muslim to an "infidel" Western power.
"We were not serious about the whole thing, not only this administration but the previous one," said Richard Hrair Dekmejian, an expert in Islamic fundamentalism and author at the University of Southern California. "We did not engage these people creatively. There were missed opportunities."
U.S. officials struggled to communicate with Muslim clerics unfamiliar with modern diplomacy and distrustful of the Western world, and they failed to take advantage of fractures in the Taliban leadership.
"We never heard what they were trying to say," said Milton Bearden, a former CIA station chief who oversaw U.S. covert operations in Afghanistan in the 1980s. "We had no common language. Ours was, 'Give up bin Laden.' They were saying, 'Do something to help us give him up.' "
State Department officials assert that despite hours of talks and proposals that were infuriatingly vague, the Afghan rulers never truly intended to give up bin Laden.
U.S. negotiators started out "very, very patient," one official said. But over the course of many meetings, the envoys "lost all patience with them because they kept saying they would do something and they did exactly nothing."
The meetings took place in Tashkent, Kandahar, Islamabad, Bonn, New York and Washington. There were surprise satellite calls, one of which led to a 40-minute chat between a mid-level State Department bureaucrat and the Taliban's supreme leader, Mohammad Omar. There was a surprise visit to Washington, made by a Taliban envoy bearing a gift carpet for Bush.
The diplomatic effort to snare bin Laden began as early as 1996, when officials devised a plan to use back channels to Sudan, one of seven countries on the U.S. list of terrorist-supporting states. Under the plan, bin Laden would be arrested in Khartoum and extradited to Saudi Arabia, which would turn him over to the United States.
But the United States could not persuade the Saudis to accept bin Laden, and Sudan instead expelled him to Afghanistan in May 1996 -- a few months before the Taliban seized power in Kabul.
The Clinton administration did not begin seriously pressing the Taliban for bin Laden's expulsion until the August 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed 224 people, including 12 Americans, and injured 4,600.
The bombings were "a seminal moment," changing Washington's view of the Taliban, an administration official said. The attacks convinced U.S. policymakers that Omar was no longer simply interested in conquering Afghanistan, but that his protection was allowing bin Laden, a longtime friend, to engage in terrorist ventures abroad.
U.S. officials launched a two-pronged policy to pressure the Taliban into handing over bin Laden. On the one hand, the United States used the United Nations and the threat of sanctions. On the other, it began a hard-nosed dialogue.
Within days of the embassy bombings, State Department officer Michael Malinowski began telephoning Taliban officials. On one occasion, Malinowski, lounging on the deck of his Washington home, spoke by telephone with Omar.
"I would say, 'Hey, give up bin Laden,' and they would say, 'No. . . . Show us the evidence,' " Malinowski said. Taliban leaders argued they could not expel a guest, and Malinowski responded, "It is not all right if this visitor goes up to the roof of your house and shoots his gun at his neighbors."
On Feb. 3, 1999, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Karl E. Inderfurth, the Clinton administration's point man for talks with the Taliban, and Michael Sheehan, State Department counterterrorism chief, went to Islamabad to deliver a stern message to the Taliban's deputy foreign minister, Abdul Jalil: The United States henceforth would hold the Taliban responsible for any terrorist act by bin Laden.
By that time, bin Laden had been indicted for his alleged role in the embassy bombings. The officials reviewed the indictment in detail with the Taliban and offered to provide more evidence if the Taliban sent a delegation to New York. The Taliban did not do so.
Immediately after the U.S. warning, Taliban security forces took bin Laden from his Kandahar compound and spirited him away to a remote site, according to media reports at the time. They also seized his satellite communications and barred him from contact with the media.
Publicly, the Taliban said they no longer knew where he was. Inderfurth now says the United States interpreted such statements "as an effort to evade their responsibility to turn him over."
Others, however, say the cryptic statements should have been interpreted differently. Bearden, for example, believes the Taliban more than once set up bin Laden for capture by the United States and communicated its intent by saying he was lost.
"Every time the Afghans said, 'He's lost again,' they are saying something. They are saying, 'He's no longer under our protection,' " Bearden said. "They thought they were signaling us subtly, and we don't do signals."
U.N. pressure steadily mounted. In October 1999, a Security Council resolution demanded the Taliban turn over bin Laden to "appropriate authorities" but left open the possibility he could be tried somewhere besides a U.S. court.
In response, the Taliban proposed bringing bin Laden to justice, either in Afghanistan or another Muslim country.
One Taliban proposal suggested bin Laden be turned over to a panel of three Islamic jurists, one each chosen by Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
When the United States rejected that proposal, the Taliban countered that it would settle for only one Islamic jurist on such a panel, a source close to the Taliban leadership said.
Taliban leaders also kept demanding the United States provide more evidence of bin Laden's terrorist activities.
"It became clear that the call for more evidence was more a delaying tactic than a sincere effort to solve the bin Laden issue," Inderfurth said.
Throughout 1999 and 2000, Inderfurth, Sheehan and Thomas R. Pickering, then undersecretary of state, continued meeting in Washington, Islamabad, New York and Bonn to review evidence against bin Laden. They warned of war if there were another terrorist attack.
"We saw a continuing effort to evade, deny and obfuscate," Inderfurth said. "They had no interest in an international panel, really. Their only intention was not to hand bin Laden over."
Phyllis E. Oakley, head of the State Department's intelligence bureau in the late 1990s, said her bureau concluded Omar would never give up bin Laden.
Last March, Rahmatullah Hashimi, a 24-year-old Taliban envoy, arrived in Washington on a surprise visit, meeting with reporters, middle-ranking State Department bureaucrats and private Afghanistan experts. He carried a gift carpet and a letter from Omar, both meant for President Bush.
Hashimi said he had come with a new offer, but U.S. officials now dismiss his visit as just another feint. They say Hashimi simply wanted to know whether the new administration had a fresh idea for breaking the deadlock.
Yet the two sides kept meeting, mostly in Islamabad. Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca saw Taliban ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef there in early August, and U.S. embassy officials held secret talks with Taliban security chief Hameed Rasoli. The Taliban invited a U.S. delegation to Kandahar, but the United States refused unless a solution for handing over bin Laden was first reached, a source close to the Taliban said.
Even after Sept. 11, as U.S. aircraft carriers and warplanes rushed toward Afghanistan, the Taliban's mysterious maneuvering continued.
Bearden, the former CIA administrator, picked up his phone in Reston in early October and dialed a satellite number in Kandahar. Hashimi answered, still full of optimism that Saudi clerics and an upcoming conference of Islamic nations would give their blessing to Bush's demand that they "cough him up."
"There was a 50-50 chance something could happen," Hashimi told Bearden, "if the Saudis stepped in."
Five days later, bin Laden remained at large and the United States began pummeling Kandahar and other Taliban strongholds.
"I have no doubts they wanted to get rid of him. He was a pain in the neck," Bearden said of bin Laden. "It never clicked."
Staff writers Gilbert M. Gaul, Mary Pat Flaherty and James V. Grimaldi and researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.