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April 13, 2004 - The Los Angeles Times (CA)

Drug War Led Bush Astray Before 9/11

By Robert Scheer

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Why won't they just admit they blew it? It is long past time for the president and his national security team to concede that before the Sept. 11 attacks they failed to grasp the seriousness of the Al Qaeda threat, were negligent in how they handled the terrorist group's key benefactors and did not take the simple steps that might well have prevented the tragedy.

While they are at it, they might also explain why, for more than two years, they have been trying so hard to convince us that none of the above is true.

Most recently, we learned that President Bush decided to stay on vacation for three more weeks despite receiving a briefing that told him about "patterns of suspicious activity in this country consistent with preparations for hijackings or other types of attacks" by Osama bin Laden's thugs, who were described as determined and capable enough to pull off devastating attacks on U.S. soil.

We also now know that the Bush administration coddled fundamentalist Saudi Arabia and nuclear-weapons-dealing Pakistan, the only nations that recognized the Taliban, both before and after the Sept. 11 murders.

But what is perhaps even more astonishing is that, because the Bush administration's attention was focused on the "war on drugs," it praised Afghanistan's Taliban regime even though it was harboring Bin Laden and his terror camps. The Taliban refused to extradite the avowed terrorist even after he admitted responsibility for a series of deadly assaults against American diplomatic and military sites in Africa and the Middle East.

On May 15, 2001, I blasted the Bush administration for rewarding the Taliban for "controlling" the opium crop with $43 million in U.S. aid to Afghanistan, to be distributed by an arm of the United Nations. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced the gift, specifically mentioning the opium suppression as the rationale and assuring that the U.S. would "continue to look for ways to provide more assistance to the Afghans."

Five months before 9/11, I publicly challenged the wisdom of supporting a regime that backed Al Qaeda: "Never mind that Osama bin Laden still operates the leading anti-American terror operation from his base in Afghanistan, from which, among other crimes, he launched two bloody attacks on American embassies in Africa in 1998.

I'm not clairvoyant, but I didn't need my own CIA to know that it's self-destructive to reward a regime that harbors the world's most dangerous terrorists.

After 9/11, the column was dug up by bloggers and widely distributed and debated on the Internet. Defenders of the administration attacked it as a distortion, arguing that because the money was targeted as humanitarian aid, the U.S. was not actually helping the Taliban. Yet this specious distinction ignored the context of Powell's glowing remarks, and it failed to explain a similarly toned follow-up meeting Aug. 2, 2001, in Islamabad, Pakistan, which gave the Taliban similar kid-glove treatment.

That meeting, held between Christina B. Rocca, assistant secretary of State for South Asia, and Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan, took place four days before Bush received his now-infamous briefing on the imminent threat from Al Qaeda agents who were already in sleeper cells in this country, armed with explosives.

Yet Rocca said nothing to the Taliban's ambassador about Al Qaeda's continuing threat to kill Americans, ignoring the fact that the Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders were at that point inseparable, financially, militarily and ideologically.

In her defense, Rocca did ask the Taliban representative to extradite Bin Laden, for which she received nothing but bland disclaimers. "We gave Rocca our complete assurance," Zaeef told the local media, "that our soil will not be used against America, and that Afghan soil will not be used for any terrorist activity."

Zaeef was also pleased that Rocca again congratulated the Taliban for its success in eradicating the opium crop, calling the meeting "very successful" and "very cordial." And why should he not have been? As in May, the U.S. again was bringing not just words of encouragement but also a big cash prize.

"In recognition of the Taliban's elimination of opium, the raw material used to make heroin, the Bush administration is giving $1.5 million to the United Nations Drug Control Program to finance crop substitution," reported the Associated Press.

Today, opium production in a tattered Afghanistan is at an all-time high, benefiting various warlords and a resurgent Taliban, while our money, troops and attention are focused on a quagmire in Iraq, a nation that had nothing to do with 9/11 and is not known for its opium.

Go figure that out.

Robert Scheer writes a weekly column for The Times.

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