In a bleak fortified compound few non-Muslims have ever seen sat a man few non-Muslims have ever met mulling over the future of a wanted man, his own nation and much of the world beyond. Not often in history is anyone given such a moment to affect the world's course, but the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, is that man. As American warplanes converged on the region surrounding Afghanistan, he had a stark choice to make. He could call by radio to the Taliban fighters in Osama bin Laden's personal security guard and order them to hand over their "guest" to justice. Or he could refuse and make Afghanistan the fiery center of President Bush's declared war on terror.
At this moment of crisis, the fortyish former village prayer leader was probably sitting as he often does, cross-legged on the floor, praying and reading the Koran, which has guided him, since the formation of the Taliban in 1994, from scholarly obscurity to spiritual leader of the movement and temporal ruler of the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan. Yet Omar may find little explicit instruction there for a decision that could equally satisfy his tribal ethics, his puritanical version of Islam and his nation's interests. If he delivers bin Laden to the West, he betrays the man who helped bring him to power and sustains his rule now. If he follows his faith in Islamic jihad or his country's tradition of protecting guests, he condemns Afghanistan to another onslaught in the savage wars that have brought abject misery to its people for the past 22 years. Even if he does hand over bin Laden to American authorities tomorrow, he has no guarantee that the U.S. will not make his regime pay for its sins of the past.
A TIME reporter who talked to Omar several months ago says he was pondering such dangers. "Did we invite him in?" said Omar of bin Laden. "He was already here. But we don't know how to get rid of him or where to send him." Now Omar's dilemma has reached cataclysmic proportions, and no one knows if he has any real-world grasp of the consequences.
By Saturday, Omar had made up his mind: "No, no, no." He overruled even the tempering recommendation of a 600-man body of senior clerics last Thursday to "encourage" bin Laden to leave Afghanistan "in his own free will" at a time and to a place of his choosing. Now, said the Taliban, Afghanistan is ready for a "showdown of might."
As the U.S. moved steadily toward launching an assault on Afghan territory, Taliban soldiers armed with AKs trundled antiquated rocket launchers into position, while citizens fled to the barren countryside or the Pakistani frontier. No one was sure where the world's most wanted man, Osama bin Laden, might be: in a fortified network of caves tunneling under the eastern mountains, "riding off on a horse," as newspapers in Pakistan reported, or even alone on the run?