Omar’s move came after the then U.S. coordinator for counter terrorism, Richard Clarke, announced countries that harbor terrorism would themselves be at risk – not just terrorist facilities – following the August 7, 1998, al-Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
More than 200 people died in those simultaneous attacks.
As a result, the Taliban imposed tougher restrictions on bin Laden amid a flurry of Taliban missions to Islamabad, Dubai, Ashqabad, Kandahar and Kabul. Omar announced bin Laden was being denied all visits and that his communications equipment had been confiscated.
A Western military analyst based inside Kabul told me at the time: “This all helps, even the language they are using, making concessions and holding out olive branches. But this is also characteristic of this time of year when the fighting stops (due to winter).
“Now it's all diplomatic and seems to be heading in the right direction,” he said. “But that can change quickly once the first sign of fighting starts.”
The United States subsequently bombed the Afghan province of Khost, and the Taliban responded by declaring bin Laden not guilty of the embassy bombings. In London, reports were emerging at that time that bin Laden was plotting attacks in Britain and Europe.
And now, 13 years later, the policy wonks in Kabul and Washington are in a not too dissimilar situation.
Despite previous failures, negotiators from President Barack Obama’s administration are yearning for talks with moderates within Taliban ranks prepared to isolate Mullah Omar, who has reportedly lived in Pakistan since the Taliban were ousted in November 2001.
It’s possibly the toughest job in international diplomacy. Omar clearly can’t be trusted, especially in light of the Taliban suicide attack that killed Rabbani just three months ago. And in the lead-up to 9/11, he was among bin Laden’s closest confident.
“Obama's opponents can easily use such moves to attack him without offering any serious alternative strategy beyond their hoo-ha nationalism and lowest common denominator vote catching rhetoric,” Greenwood says. “Finding an acceptable formulation will test the administration.”
The reality is that in many parts of the world where Islamic terrorism has dominated the security agenda for more than a decade, such as here in Southeast Asia, priorities have moved on, and interest has swung away from terrorism toward more conventional military threats.
Whether this shift can be achieved over Afghanistan, while desirable, remains to be seen.