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Gary S. Chafetz

Gary S. Chafetz

Posted March 15, 2009 | 11:54 PM (EST)

Why Not Talk to Bin Laden


WHY NOT TALK TO BIN LADEN

President Obama wisely believes in the value of engaging in dialogue with those whose viewpoints differ radically from his--the President of Iran, perhaps members of Hamas, and even "moderate" elements of the Taliban. Because of the "deteriorating" political and military situation in Afghanistan--after more than seven years of American occupation--it certainly behooves Presidents Obama and Karzai to talk the Taliban, who doggedly enjoy widespread support in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

When enemies talk to one another face-to-face, a remarkable thing can happen. Sometimes they stop demonizing each another and actually find some common ground. Talking can often accomplish what force has failed to achieve.

In October 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan because of the Taliban's refusal to hand over its "guest," Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We would otherwise have never invaded Afghanistan. The 2003 invasion of Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with 9/11, so diluted our military resources in Afghanistan that bin Laden was able to slip away from Tora Bora to his current hideout, probably in the nearby city of Parachimar, Pakistan.

The military option in Afghanistan isn't working. More terrorist attacks against the United States could well occur, perhaps worse than 9/11. Aside from the damage to our collective psyche, the war on terrorism will end up costing us trillions of dollars we can't afford, especially as we teeter on the brink of a possible economic collapse, something bin Laden may feel he is partially responsible for.

Since bin Laden is the one person most likely to have the power and prestige to prevent future terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies, it would be well worth the effort for us to find a way to talk with him directly. Unfortunately, a meeting between President Obama and bin Laden is not possible. For security reasons, the president of the United States would not venture into Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Similarly, bin Laden would not trust any American pledge of safe passage to a neutral location.

How could we best initiate a dialogue with bin Laden? And who would be willing to take the risk of getting bin Laden's side of the story, allowing him to fully explain why he hates the West so much? I believe a journalist would be a sensible choice.

Bin Laden, who has not met with any Western journalist since before 9/11, might be willing to agree to such an interview, because it would serve his interests. He could respond to questions and have a platform for speaking directly to the American people, without being demonized and vilified.

Although there are certainly many more qualified journalists than myself, I would welcome the challenge of arranging and conducting an interview with the leader of Al Qaeda. I have a successful record of persuading beleaguered people, reluctant to grant interviews to anyone else, to talk.

I have travelled to the Middle East at least a dozen times, twice to Afghanistan, and once to Pakistan. In the mid 1980s, I organized and led a six-month archaeological expedition--supported and sponsored by Harvard University and the National Geographic Society--to a remote region of Egypt's western desert. Hence, I have some expertise in and an appreciation of the Middle East. Recently, I was able to persuade the former Washington D.C.-lobbyist, Jack Abramoff to grant me extensive and exclusive interviews. Before and during his imprisonment, I secretly met with him over a two-year period--without the permission or knowledge of his lawyers or the prosecutors--for a recently published book. In the mid 1990s, as a correspondent for The Boston Globe, I helped cover a sensational story about a nationally recognized female Harvard psychiatrist, accused of sexually and psychologically abusing--and causing the suicide of--her younger Hispanic Harvard Medical School patient. I was the only reporter to whom she eventually granted extensive interviews for a book later published by Random House, again without the knowledge or permission of her lawyers or the prosecutors.

Why would bin Laden be willing to grant an interview to someone like me, who happens to be half Jewish? Perhaps he would want to demonstrate that he is not opposed to Jews or Americans, only to Zionism and American foreign policy.

An in-depth interview--preferably a series of interviews--with bin Laden would enable the American people to more fully understand his indignation. Perhaps this new understanding would lead to a rational re-evaluation of American foreign policy, resulting in the mitigation--if not elimination--of terrorist attacks against the West.

We would all stand to gain by such an outcome.

Gary S. Chafetz is the author of the recently published book, The Perfect Villain: John McCain and the Demonization of Lobbyist Jack Abramoff. He is also the author of Obsession: The Bizarre Relationship Between a Prominent Harvard Psychiatrist and Her Suicidal Patient.