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Sunday, 30 September, 2001, 15:52 GMT 16:52 UK
Analysis: Decoding Taleban's message
Taleban ambassador Mullah Zaeef (right) with translator
Mullah Zaeef (right) comes from the moderate wing of the Taleban movement
Daniel Lak

The suggestion by the Taleban ambassador in Islamabad that Osama Bin Laden is in the country and under his group's "control" has already been rejected by members of the anti-terror coalition headed by Washington.

But behind the scenes, the Americans will probably be keen to know just what the ambassador was offering, or indeed, what he meant by his somewhat cryptic remarks to reporters in the Pakistani capital.

Afghanistan is a country and a society that values negotiations above many other things.

Since there are no direct contacts at all between the US and the Taleban regime, Pakistan will have to be the conduit for any clarifications or elaboration on the ambassador's words.

No doubt the Pakistanis, as the only country with diplomatic ties with the students' militia in Kandahar and Kabul, are already seeking those clarifications.

Multiple conclusions

There are many ways of looking at what the ambassador said.

First and foremost, he could simply be saying to the US that Osama Bin Laden is under Taleban protection and the Americans can do their worst.

Afghan refugees in Pakistan
Afghanistan has little to gain from further defiance
That is unlikely as the Taleban have little to gain from yet more open defiance of Washington.

Ambassador Zaeef could be sending a coded message to a variety of sources.

He could be telling Osama Bin Laden that his future is up for negotiation.

The ambassador did ask the Americans, and it almost seems in a pleading tone, to start talks with the Taleban "because this might produce a good result".

In this case, he is obviously talking to the Americans as well.

His words would then represent an incremental movement towards Washington's demand that Bin Laden be handed over to them immediately.

Taleban split

It is far short of what the anti-terror coalition governments want, and it is already been rejected as a bargaining position. But it is movement.

Bin Laden supporter kisses poster in Peshawar, Pakistan
The situation is volatile and dangerous
Another intriguing question is whether or not Mullah Zaeef is speaking for the entire Taleban movement.

Observers say the ambassador in Pakistan is on the moderate wing of the Taleban, and his words could be seen as a signal of some disagreement with hard-liners.

The intervention of Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader, could end any disunity of that sort since he is regarded across the spectrum of the movement as Amir al-Mumineen, the commander of the faithful, with its leadership endorsed by Islam.

Splits in the Taleban leadership have been suggested before.

In the past, the Kabul-based Taleban government was seen as more moderate, less obsessed with Islamic purity, than its counterpart in Kandahar.

But since so few countries have spent any time diplomatically with the Taleban, intelligence about their inner workings is thin on the ground.

New variables

The Pakistanis must be aware of a great deal, given that their intelligence agencies played a key role in the group's founding and early successes.

But no one is divulging what, if anything, Pakistan has passed on to Washington or its allies.

US President George W Bush
The US is in no mood to negotiate
One thing is certain. Mullah Zaeef has unleashed a new set of variables into the volatile and dangerous situation in his region. This is, in many way, a situation typical of Afghanistan.

It is a country and a society that values negotiations above many other things.

Very little, outside of the strictures of Islam, is set in stone. But America's demands seem to be.

They are not negotiating; they are demanding - and promising certain retaliation if they don't get their way. The Taleban seem not yet to have acknowledged that.

See also:

30 Sep 01 | Middle East
Bin Laden 'hidden by Taleban'
18 Sep 01 | South Asia
Who is Osama Bin Laden?
28 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's turbulent history
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