Hamid Mir is the only journalist to interview Osama bin Laden three times – and the only one to speak with him after 9/11. Mir, who is based in Pakistan, is an expert on al-Qaeda, Afghanistan, and the politics of the region, with news sources that few other people have, so when Mir says – as he did in a conversation with me – that bin Laden is living in Pakistan’s western territory, it should end the never-ending debate about whether the Saudi terrorist is alive.
(A reflection of the debate: Two weeks ago, Time magazine detailed bin Laden’s latest audio recording – but for the past eight years, it’s run multiple reports that bin Laden has likely died, writing in June of 2002 that “a small minority of officials in the Pentagon, CIA and FBI believe that bin Laden’s public silence suggests he has succumbed — if not to U.S. air strikes, then possibly to kidney failure.” In February, my True/Slant colleague, Michael Roston, deftly raised the issue of bin Laden’s health.)
The interview I did with Mir at the Commonwealth Club of California sparked a number of important points, including the fact that the U.S. drone attacks in Pakistan have excised only a handful of al Qaeda leaders – but have killed hundreds and hundreds of civilians, prompting a huge backlash against Washington (and Barack Obama, who’s chosen to continue the drone policy that started under George W. Bush).
Still, Mir’s most revealing moment came when he recalled the time he interviewed bin Laden near Kabul, and bin Laden had surrounded himself with Coca-Cola. Why was this so unusual? Because the Taliban – the extremist group that was then running Afghanistan – had banned the American soft drink, deeming it a product of infidelity and U.S. arrogance. Bin Laden didn’t care. He wanted the beverage by his side, and decided the Taliban didn’t know what they were doing. Yes, the Taliban harbored bin Laden, but for the man with a $25 million bounty on his head, the relationship was often based on convenience, Mir said. In the case of Coke, bin Laden was with the United States, not against it.
Of course, this is an example of hypocrisy, but the real world is full of it – including that of the Taliban, who are still thriving in Afghanistan and Pakistan. During their Draconian reign of Afghanistan, the Taliban banned photography and any image that depicted human or animal faces. Labels of shampoo bottles were blacked out if they featured smiling women. Road signs telling drivers to look out for donkeys were whited out – at least the part showing the donkey’s head. Photo studios couldn’t operate – unless they were used to take passport photos and other official images.
That’s why the 2003 book “Taliban” – and its must-see online slide show – is so revealing. Based on discovered photos left behind by the Taliban in Kandahar, the work shows photos of Taliban soldiers posing in front of the camera for fun. Many of the Taliban wear eyeliner called kohl. Some of them hold hands with their fellow Taliban in what experts says are gay embraces (something strictly prohibited by Taliban elders).
The photos displayed were originally meant for private eyes. Their public display shows the Taliban for who they are: real people with real double-standards. Granted, these are low-level Taliban, but – like bin Laden and his Coke containers – they give a fuller picture of an enemy that just won’t go away.