KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN — Osama bin Laden may be Public Enemy No. 1 in America. But across the dramatic stony wastes of Afghanistan - where the superstrict Islamic Taliban shelters the Saudi-born exile - he is somewhat of a hero.
Many Afghans name newborn children after Mr. Bin Laden. And where people once complained that his presence was bringing further ruin on Afghanistan after 20 years of war, they now often express approval.
Afghan and Western observers deem the US-led crusade - he was indicted in New York for masterminding the US Embassy bombings in Africa last year - against Bin Laden "irrational" and "obsessive." They blame it for creating an anti-West backlash here. Limited UN sanctions, imposed a month ago to pressure the Taliban into turning over Bin Laden - at US insistence - sealed the argument.
"It will not make us hand him over, because there is no way to succumb to such pressures," says Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the Taliban foreign minister, in a rare interview here. "The Americans turned him into an important person, and now he's considered a big man."
Bin Laden's pedigree
His pedigree is now well-known here. Bin Laden played a revered role in the jihad, or holy war, waged by US-backed Islamist mujahideen against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. As such, he is seen as a "guest" that tradition forbids the Taliban betraying.
"The Taliban did not bring him - he was invited by the previous government, and we inherited him," says Habibullah Fouzi, a senior Taliban official in Islamabad. "[Bin Laden] does not belong to us, but he is our guest, and according to Islamic law, we must deal with him as a guest."
The Taliban controls some 90 percent of Afghanistan, where Bin Laden moves about with a small entourage from his main redoubt in eastern mountain caves and camps - where he was reportedly sighted in late October - to the southern desert plains around Kandahar.
Choked with motorized rickshaws and bathed in dust, this former capital of Afghanistan is the spiritual center of the Taliban movement. Many Bin Laden family members live in a compound near the airport, which is not a well-kept secret.
"There is one of Bin Laden's people, buying wood for the family," says a boy in a bazaar, pointing out an Arab man in a white skull hat and camouflage jacket, who had parked a faded yellow military truck next to a pile of split logs.
Speaking as if they were normal neighbors, the boy says he worked as a cleaner for the household. He once found and returned a thick roll of hundred dollar bills. "They were very happy about that, and nice to work for," he recalls.
That Bin Laden's reputation has been overinflated is widely shared. "He's become a Superman, or like James Bond, he's everywhere at once," says a Western official in Kabul. "If someone slips off a ladder somewhere, it's Bin Laden. If two trains crash in Japan, it's Bin Laden."
Warnings of Bin Laden-linked global threats have now become routine. The US State Department cautioned Americans celebrating the New Year abroad to be wary of an attack.
"What happened in Africa was very dramatic, and was a very serious blow," says one senior UN official in Kabul. "So the size of the drama has to be balanced by the importance of the guy who did it - he must be powerful, evil, and rich - or it won't make sense."
Bin Laden has never claimed responsibility for the blasts at the American Embassies, but praised those who carried them out. He has declared war on the US, calling on "every Muslim" to "obey God's command to kill the Americans ... wherever he finds them."
The US accuses Bin Laden of running a global terrorist network called Al-Qaida, though a New York Times/PBS-Frontline investigation into the case published last April found that US officials may have little firm evidence - if any - that directly links Bin Laden to the Africa blasts, which killed 224.
Taliban officials say they have seen no evidence of guilt, and so have no reason to hand him over.
"The real definition of terrorism [civilians targeted for political reasons] is not supported by anybody," says Mr. Muttawakil. Of those responsible for the Africa bombings, he says: "They have to be punished.... It was a bad deed."
Taliban officials say that Bin Laden is free to leave Afghanistan - he reportedly made such an offer in late October - and have suggested that an small Islamic body called an ulema, made up of several Muslim scholars from Islamic countries, examine the evidence.
American officials have scoffed at such a possibility, and instead pulled out the diplomatic stops to have him extradited.
"The sole focus on one man has been counterproductive," says a European diplomat in Islamabad. "The Taliban is divided on this issue, and a lot would like to get rid of him," he says, but Taliban chief Mullah Omar is known to have close ties to the Saudi-born dissident.
"There are smart people in Washington who should know better," the diplomat adds. "Bin Laden's become a hero, in Afghanistan and outside."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society