Julian Borger in Washington
The Guardian, Wednesday 24 March 2004 08.37 GMT
The day before the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration agreed on a plan to oust the Taliban regime in Afghanistan by force if it refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, according to a report by a bipartisan commission of inquiry.
The report pointed out that agreement on the plan, which involved a steady escalation of pressure over three years, had been repeatedly put off by the Clinton and Bush administrations, despite the repeated failure of attempts to use diplomatic and economic pressure.
The revelation emerged at the beginning of the commission’s hearings this week on the country’s failure to prevent the attacks, in which the top officials from both administrations came under scrutiny.
The hearings followed two days of uproar in Washington over allegations from a former White House counter-terrorism tsar, Richard Clarke, that the Bush administration’s ideological obsession with Iraq had hindered the momentum of the struggle with al-Qaida in the months before the attack. Mr Clarke claimed that the plan to increase the pressure on the Taliban was inherited from the Clinton administration.
However, in testimony to the commission, the secretary of state, Colin Powell, said the September 10 meeting of top White House officials, to agree the strategy towards the Taliban, demonstrated a new determination to deal with al-Qaida.
The report drawn up by the commission’s staff said: “From the spring of 1997 to September 2001, the US government tried to persuade the Taliban to expel Bin Laden to a country where he could face justice. The efforts employed inducements, warnings and sanctions. All these efforts failed.”
At a meeting of the Bush administration’s top national security officials on September 10, a three-phase strategy was agreed.
The Taliban would be presented with a final ultimatum to hand over Bin Laden. Failing that, covert military aid would be channelled to anti-Taliban groups. If both those options failed, “the deputies agreed that the United States would seek to overthrow the Taliban regime through more direct action.”
However, the three-step process would have taken up to three years, and did not represent an immediate attack plan.
The next day, hijacked planes destroyed the World Trade Centre and hit the Pentagon, triggering the launch of an anti-Taliban offensive in October and the Taliban’s fall a month later.
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