Two days after U.S. missiles struck Afghanistan in retaliation for al Qaeda's bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, the head of that country's Taliban government told a State Department official that Congress should force then President Bill Clinton to resign "in order to rebuild U.S. popularity in the Islamic world," according to documents released yesterday.
The suggestion is contained in a newly declassified State Department cable recounting the first and only direct communication between the U.S. government and Mohammad Omar, the reclusive Taliban leader who was reaching out in the wake of the U.S. strikes on alleged al Qaeda facilities in his country and Sudan.
The cable was among more than a dozen Taliban-related documents released late yesterday by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which obtained the records through a Freedom of Information Act request and posted them on its Web site, www.nsarchive.org.
In the Aug. 22, 1998, telephone conversation with U.S. diplomat Michael E. Malinowski, Omar "parroted" many of the hard-line views of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who had been given sanctuary in Afghanistan by the Taliban. Omar said he "was aware of no evidence that bin Laden had engaged in or planned terrorist acts while on Afghan soil" and warned that the missile strikes "could spark more, not less, terrorist attacks," according to the cable.
Omar also offered a political suggestion to Malinowski, who then was head of the State Department's Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh desk. "He said that in order to rebuild U.S. popularity in the Islamic world and because of his current domestic political difficulties Congress should force President Clinton to resign," according to the cable.
Clinton at the time was the target of an investigation by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr in connection with the Monica S. Lewinsky affair and would soon face impeachment in the House. Some Republican leaders had openly suggested that Clinton had ordered the strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan to divert attention from his troubles, an allegation that the Sept. 11 commission recently declared an unfounded "slur."
Although the phone conversation had been described previously, the release of the Omar cable and others provides the most detailed accounting to date of U.S. efforts to pressure the Taliban into denying bin Laden safe haven. State Department spokesman Kurtis A. Cooper said the conversation with Malinowski is the only one that occurred between Omar and the U.S. government.
The other records released yesterday include a September 1998 cable recounting the comments of Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the Taliban envoy to the United Nations, who told a U.S. official that Omar "is the primary reason" that bin Laden continued to enjoy sanctuary in Afghanistan. The envoy was reported as saying that "80% of Taliban officials oppose this [sanctuary] policy."