Peering at the 60-foot-high faces of four of America's most famous presidents, the dozen robed and bearded Afghans drew little attention at the base of Mt. Rushmore in July 1999.
Only bullet and shrapnel scars beneath their heavy attire would be clues that these visitors were militia commanders, some with ties to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida network.
And just as quietly as they had arrived, the Afghans were shepherded back to Afghanistan -- all expenses paid courtesy of the U.S. government and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Since 1986, spanning the early years of post-Soviet occupation to the oppressive regime of the Taliban, the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the Omaha commuter campus has served as a back door for U.S. intelligence efforts to expose Afghan leaders to American ideas and democracy.
Even as the anti-Taliban rhetoric in Washington grew harsher in the 1990s, the university center provided a softer approach to foreign policy, an approach that was often awkward, occasionally controversial and, ultimately, a failure.
The university hosted parties for the Taliban and then filed briefings to the U.S. State Department. School officials distributed thousands of textbooks to Afghan children that reflected a government-approved version of history depicting women as second-class citizens. Encouraged by Washington, the school worked with a U.S. oil company to try to persuade the Taliban to grant valuable oil pipeline rights in Afghanistan.
The goal was to provide Afghan leaders, particularly members of the Taliban, with a taste of America in the hope that they might become U.S. allies.
The Afghans continued their trips to America even after sanctions against the Taliban were implemented by the U.S. and other nations.
In November 1997, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright harshly criticized Taliban leaders as sadistic killers who nailed enemies to village walls and stoned uncovered women.
One month later, eight key Taliban members, including the foreign minister, toured the United States, stopping in Nebraska and Houston, where they visited NASA headquarters.
They also visited Washington, where State Department officials tried to reinforce Albright's views.
"We wanted to take advantage to convey this message to them directly, as well, and that's what we took advantage of these visits for," said Leonard Scensny, public affairs adviser for the State Department's Bureau of South Asian Affairs, which oversaw dozens of trips of Afghan and Taliban leaders.
The trips involving senior Taliban officials did little good, he said. During one meeting with the Taliban leaders, U.S. officials encouraged them to bring peace to Afghanistan and restore human rights.
The Taliban's reply was curt, Scensny said.
"They said this is God's law. This is the way it's supposed to be. Leave us alone," he said.
The trips were little more than a blind wager, said Peter Tomsen, a former U.S. ambassador to Armenia who teaches at the university.
There is no evidence that any of the visitors are assisting U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, and State Department records show that many remain enemies.
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