PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And now joining us from Peshawar, Pakistan, is Rahimullah Yusufzai. He’s a leading Pakistani journalist, and a senior editor and bureau chief for the News International in Peshawar. He’s also one of a handful of journalists who’s interviewed Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban. Thanks very much for joining us, Rahimullah.
RAHIMULLAH YUSUFZAI, JOURNALIST: Thank you.
JAY: So, as I said, you’re one of the very few people that have interviewed bin Laden and Mullah Omar. First of all, do you believe bin Laden is in Pakistan? And what do you think is the relationship between Omar and al-Qaeda?
YUSUFZAI: I doubt if anybody knows about the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. The Americans and the Pakistani authorities, they have been trying to hunt him down for the last eight years, but they have failed. I think he is alive, and I believe he is in the region, the Pakistan-Afghanistan border areas. He could be anywhere. It’s a long border, almost 2,500 kilometers, so we don’t really know. Every effort has been made; so much money has been spent; there has been the use of technology, human intelligenceï¿½hundreds of informers have been hired by the Americans. But even now nobody knows about his whereabouts. All we know and all that has been said is speculation.
JAY: What year did you interview bin Laden? And when did you interview Omar? When was the last time you saw them?
YUSUFZAI: I met Osama bin Laden twice in 1998 and interviewed him in May and December. But those interviews were done in Afghanistan. And I met the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the first time in March ï¿½95, when the Taliban movement had just been launched, and then I kept meeting him once or twice or thrice a year. And I think I have met him more than a dozen times. The last meeting was after 9/11. And after that, I don’t know if he has met any journalists or given any interview.
JAY: Now, what is your understanding of the relationship between Omar, bin Laden, and al-Qaeda?
YUSUFZAI: The relationship, I think, was very tense. It was never cordial. And I am surprised so many people believe that al-Qaeda was ruling Afghanistan, that Taliban were actually beholden to al-Qaeda. That’s wrong, actually. Taliban were ruling the country, and they had given refuge to bin Laden. And he was so much dependent on Taliban that he had to ask Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar to give me an interviewï¿½he could not do it on his own. I think that the relationship was initially not really bad. But even when Taliban first captured Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan in August ’96, Taliban had their ill-relations and doubts about Osama bin Laden, because they thought he was living in an area which was controlled by the Afghan government, led by Professor [Burhanuddin] Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Mehsud. And Osama bin Laden also had his doubts about Taliban. He thought they were a creation of the US and Pakistan intelligence. But then they held meetings, and the doubts were removed, and Taliban allowed him to stay in Afghanistan. But I think the Taliban, after the attacks on the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, wanted to get rid of Osama bin Laden. They even tried to send him to Chechnya. The Muslim separatists in Chechnya had invited bin Laden to come there, and they had promised him security and protection, but there was no way that bin Laden could have gone to Chechnya. It was impossible. That’s why he stayed on in Afghanistan. And Taliban could not really expel him. So I believe that the relationship was not really cordial at that time, but after the US invasion of Afghanistan and after 9/11 incident, Taliban and al-Qaeda and Mullah Omar and bin Laden, I think, have become much closer now. Now they are fighting the same enemy, now they are sacrificing their lives together, and that’s why I think the relationship between them is now much stronger than the past.
JAY: So when the United States says the reason they’re in Afghanistan is to fight al-Qaeda and that you can’t separate the Taliban from al-Qaeda, that it’s one and the same, of course, they say that one day, and then another day they’re talking about negotiations with the Taliban. What do you think is the truth of this?
YUSUFZAI: The US came to this region, invaded Afghanistan, to destroy al-Qaeda. The allegation was that al-Qaeda was behind the 9/11 attacks. And they also wanted to punish the Taliban for harboring bin Laden and for refusing to hand him over to the US. The Taliban were removed from power and they were defeated, but they have now staged a comeback. They are now much stronger than at that time. The al-Qaeda has suffered losses. They are on the run. Their strength has been depleted. The US advisor to President Obama on security affairs, General James Jones, was saying there are less than 100 al-Qaeda fighters now in Afghanistan. And I think the number of al-Qaeda members in Pakistan would not be more than 200. And to kill them, capture them, destroy them, the Americans are sending more troops. They would have more than 100,000 soldiers in Afghanistan by this summer, and then they have their NATO allies. So, its a huge force, and they are trying to fight and destroy these 300 al-Qaeda people.
JAY: That makes one think that that’s not really why they’re there. I mean, why do you think the Americans are in Afghanistan in such force?
YUSUFZAI: I think that they don’t want Afghanistan to again return to Taliban rule, so now the main fighting is against the Taliban. They don’t want al-Qaeda to again entrench itself in Afghanistan.
JAY: These are the declared reasons, but do you buy that these are the reasons? Do you thinkï¿½if the Taliban does negotiate some power deal in Afghanistan, or even takes over sections of Afghanistan, does that necessarily lead to al-Qaeda’s presence there?
YUSUFZAI: No. I think Taliban this time would be very careful. They actually would be willing to make a deal. They would say that we have no intentions to become active outside Afghanistan, and don’t allow Afghanistan soil to be used against any other countries. Even if they allowed bin Laden and al-Qaeda to train there, that would be conditional. But I think the Americans have been talking about a deal with Taliban. But this offer of talks is conditional Letï¿½s say those Taliban who lay down their arms, not those who are irreconcilable. So, those are the American conditions. I think that Americans are building such huge, big bases and military barracks in Afghanistan in places like Bagram and Kandahar and Khost and Jalalabadï¿½it’s not, I think, for a short stay. They want to retain some bases in Afghanistan even if they withdraw most of their forces. They would like to maintain a military presence because, I think, they feel that Iran is still not [inaudible] for the US. There is the threat from China. And Pakistan has been very unstable. And then there are the huge energy reservoirs in the Central Asian region, in the Caspian Sea. So I think America would like to maintain a military presence to ensure that America’s interests are protected and American imperial designs are advanced in this region.
JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk further about the battle in Marja. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Rahimullah on The Real News Network.
Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee complete accuracy.