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Bin Laden has steadily extended his influence with the Taliban while it lets him turn Afghanistan into a training ground for terror. It was bin Laden, says Ahmed Rashid, longtime reporter and expert on the Taliban, who brought anti-Americanism to the nationalistic Taliban ideology. Intelligence sources say bin Laden's men have infiltrated the Taliban's top ministries, especially Virtue and Vice, where they are said to have argued vigorously for the destruction of the Buddhas. Russia's Foreign Ministry has even reported that bin Laden was unofficially serving as the Taliban's Defense Minister. Bin Laden has allied himself with the Taliban hard-liners; the moderates--and there are some--would prefer to see him vanish over the desert horizon.
Non-Afghans drawn to bin Laden are said to make up a 1,000-strong brigade fighting as part of training on the front line in the Taliban's ongoing war with the Northern Alliance. The soldiers are not just Arab militants from dozens of Middle Eastern countries aspiring to change secular regimes into Taliban-style states but are revolutionaries from Uzbekistan and Uighur separatists from China as well. U.S. officials believe that bin Laden masterminded the Sept. 9 assassination of the leading military commander of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Taliban's chief rival for national power. In return, bin Laden and the militants are guaranteed sanctuary, plus room to set up camps to train their supporters and help to recruit fresh talent.
Many Muslim scholars say the Taliban brand of Islam falls far outside most interpretations of Koranic writ. And the Taliban's civic reign of repression has made it a pariah even in the Muslim world. Only three nations--Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates--accorded the Taliban diplomatic recognition, and the U.A.E. rescinded it last week.
The events of Sept. 11 have uncoupled Pakistan from the Taliban as nothing previously could. Now that bin Laden's activities have forced the U.S. to take a stand against the Taliban, Washington must decide how to eradicate the terrorist threat emanating from a land that has proved to be the graveyard of every previous foreign invader. Afghanistan is a place where warfare is a way of life and fighters use battle toughness and treacherous terrain to compensate for lack of equipment. "Ours is a jihad against those who brought suffering on the Afghan people and violated Islamic teaching," Omar has said. "The Taliban will fight until there is no blood in Afghanistan left to be shed." That would not be just Afghan blood, but American too.
--Reported by Hannah Bloch and Tim McGirk/Islamabad, Massimo Calabresi and Douglas Waller/Washington