Taking Tea with the Taliban

Addressing the nation on December 1, 2009, President Barack Obama laid out the case for an augmented American presence in Afghanistan to battle the Taliban forces seeking to push their way back into power. "Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al-Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government," he declared. The president offered a brief account of the Taliban's rise to power before the U.S. tossed them out in November 2001. "Al-Qaeda's base of operations was in Afghanistan," he said, "where they were harbored by the Taliban--a ruthless, repressive, and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war, and after the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere."

This has become the standard history of the American role in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and it is certainly true that in the first few years after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Washington's attention drifted. The first President Bush allowed his one term in office to end without ensuring that the United States had a working embassy in Kabul. His envoy to the Afghan resistance, Peter Tomsen, was based in Washington, and Bill Clinton, when he came into office in 1993, never appointed a successor.

But events did not allow the Clinton administration to ignore Afghanistan for long--and here is where the true story of the American role there in the 1990s diverges from the standard history. In 1994 the Taliban, originally a group of seminary students reacting against the lawlessness and abuses of Afghan warlords, seized the province of Kandahar. In 1996 they took Kabul, and by 1998 they were in control of 90 percent of Afghanistan and had launched a reign of terror on women and ethnic minorities, forbidding the schooling of girls and banning television and music.

Obama's willingness to accept the conventional history--we lost Afghanistan because we ignored Afghanistan--is reason for grave concern.

And in 1995 the Clinton administration began a policy of attempting to engage the Taliban. The story of this effort has never been told in full. I first became aware of U.S. engagement with the Taliban during a stint as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan in 1997. Declassified State Department cables now show that efforts at engagement began just three months after the group emerged in Kandahar in 1994 and well over a year before it took Kabul. The story the documents tell is one of engagement for its own sake--without any consideration given to the behavior or sincerity of an unambiguously hostile interlocutor.

* * *

On February 13, 1995, U.S. diplomats stationed in Pakistan traveled to Kandahar to meet with seven senior Taliban officials. The meeting was largely informational. The Taliban's rise had taken the world by surprise, and diplomats and intelligence agencies scrambled to determine who the Taliban were and what they wanted. The Taliban were willing to talk but not say much. While American diplomats observed that the group "appeared well-disposed toward the United States," the Taliban representatives did not answer questions about their leadership and intentions. Later the same week, another U.S. diplomat met a Taliban "insider" who told the official what he wanted to hear: the Taliban liked the United States, had no objection to elections in Afghanistan, and were suspicious of both Saudi and Pakistani intentions. This was nonsense, but it was manna for American diplomats who wanted to believe that engagement was possible.

As the dialogue with the Taliban continued into 1996, it became clear to American officials that the Taliban wished to improve their image, which had been sullied by atrocities they had committed against prisoners and by the medieval restrictions they were imposing on women (mere harbingers, it would turn out, of the horrors that followed when they took control of the country in 1998). Thomas W. Simons, then the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan and a career foreign-service officer, seized on this to justify further engagement. "Their concern about their image," he wrote, "and request that A/S [Assistant Secretary Robin] Raphel 'tell President Clinton and the West that we are not bad people,' demonstrated a growing awareness, previously absent, of their own limitations--which may be the modality through which they can be coaxed, over time, to the negotiating table."

As Simons sought to engage the Taliban, Timothy Carney, another career diplomat who was serving as ambassador to Sudan, was lobbying the Sudanese government to expel Osama bin Laden, who was already wanted for attacks in Yemen and Egypt. Bin Laden quickly relocated to the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad. There he was embraced by the Taliban. Indeed, even before the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, a political officer from the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan met with the Taliban's deputy foreign-affairs adviser to urge the group to cease sheltering Bin Laden.

Any inclination the Taliban might have had to take U.S. demands seriously was undercut nine days later when, immediately after the fall of Kabul, Secretary of State Warren Christopher instructed U.S. diplomats in Pakistan to let the Taliban know that "we wish to engage the new 'interim government' at an early stage." He asked the embassy to let the new regime know that U.S. diplomats "would like to make frequent trips to Kabul to stay in contact with your government." Foreign-service officers in Pakistan embraced this directive. Pakistan clearly supported the Taliban, so working with the Taliban would at minimum allow the embassy to avoid antagonizing its host.

Simons arranged a meeting with Taliban acting Foreign Minister Mullah Ghaus to discuss the fact that terrorists were receiving safe haven in Taliban-controlled territory. It was not a productive session. Ghaus denied the presence of any terrorists on Afghan soil but suggested that the Taliban could be more helpful if they received U.S. funding. Less than a month later, Simons's deputy John Holzman met with Ghaus to repeat U.S. demands about Bin Laden, which Ghaus dismissed.

Despite this record of failure, when Madeleine Albright succeeded Christopher as secretary of state in January 1997, efforts to engage the Taliban gathered steam. Enthusiasm for dialogue, especially among U.S. diplomats based in Pakistan, supplanted any introspection about its wisdom. Simply sitting down for tea with a diplomat fulfilled the Taliban's major needs before bargaining ever began. Engagement ironically removed any incentive the Taliban had to cease sponsoring terror or mitigate human-rights abuses.

Diplomats met Taliban representatives every few weeks. There was no effort to limit U.S. outreach to junior officials. Robin Raphel traveled repeatedly to the region to meet Taliban representatives. What resulted was theater: the Taliban would stonewall on terrorism but would also dangle just enough hope to keep diplomats calling and forestall punitive strategies. It was not hard for the Taliban to string diplomats along. On January 16, 1997, Holzman suggested that the Taliban allow a U.S. team to visit the sites of terrorist camps to confirm the alleged cessation of activity therein. Wakil Ahmed, a political adviser to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, agreed at first; but over subsequent weeks, he offered a litany of excuses to delay the visit--the Ramadan fast, winter snows, and scheduling difficulties. Eventually the offer was rescinded altogether.

Once again, the State Department walked away empty-handed, while the Taliban had secured for themselves a four-month reprieve from pressure at the very moment that al-Qaeda was using its Afghanistan base to plot attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Making the State Department's proposal for on-site inspection more ludicrous was the simple fact that satellite monitoring could give the United States a more accurate picture of the goings-on than a guided tour of sanitized camps.

Despite the failure of the Holzman initiative, there was little debate about the wisdom of accepting a Taliban offer to receive a senior State Department delegation inside Afghanistan. On March 2 and 3, 1997, a team of U.S. officials visited Kabul and Kandahar. Donald Camp, the deputy director of the State Department's South Asia / Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh unit, again asked the Taliban to expel Bin Laden. The group demurred. Mullah Ehsanullah Ehsan, an influential member of the Taliban's governing council, dismissed U.S. demands, saying that Bin Laden had been "invited to Afghanistan by the enemies of the Taliban," but that the Taliban could not sanction his expulsion. To do so would violate Afghan culture. By saying this, the Taliban demonstrated their sophisticated understanding of American diplomatic mores, for when American diplomats face a conflict between national security and cultural relativism, they usually defer to the latter.

Camp, who was subsequently promoted to handle South Asian affairs on Clinton's National Security Council, concluded that the Taliban's refusal to budge on Bin Laden justified further engagement. Camp's conviction should not surprise: once the State Department leadership had settled on engagement as a strategy, it was all but given that diplomats would validate it without letting the evidence of purposelessness and failure interfere.

Thus, the State Department's "Afghan Coordination Group" ran through the list of problems with Taliban rule--everything from sheltering Bin Laden to human rights--and even so, recommended that Washington pursue a strategy of "restrained engagement." As Holzman explained in a memo, "Not to engage the Taliban would be a mistake because such a policy will most likely leave them only more isolated, possibly more dangerous, and certainly more susceptible to those wishing to direct Taliban energies beyond Afghanistan."

Fear of inducing isolation, however, did not play a role when it came to U.S. policy toward the Northern Alliance, the group of one-time Afghan rebels and chieftains that constituted the only serious resistance to the Taliban. Most countries refused to recognize the Taliban and maintained relations with the Northern Alliance. In August 1997, a fistfight broke out between the chargé d'affaires at Afghanistan's embassy in Washington, who represented the Northern Alliance, and a more junior diplomat who pledged loyalty to the Taliban. The State Department responded by closing the embassy, sending all diplomats packing.

* * *

How did the State Department envision engagement with the Taliban? Holzman suggested testing the group's intentions by accepting their offer to fund crop-substitution programs (for the purpose of halting the heroin trade) and financing the girls' schools that the Taliban said they would tolerate but did not have the capacity to fund. Such an approach was preposterous, and not even just in retrospect. Money is fungible. Any support to the Taliban would not only reward poor behavior but also raise the capacity of the regime to support terror. Holzman further suggested that Washington encourage "moderate Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and perhaps Indonesia" to engage the Taliban bilaterally. That the State Department considered Saudi Arabia, a prime enabler of al-Qaeda, to be a moderating influence demonstrates just how far afield it had strayed from sensible policy. At the same time, the State Department's Pakistan unit wanted to remain the point group for the initiative and insisted that all engagement be conducted through the U.S. mission in Pakistan. Because the Taliban, at this point, controlled all of Afghanistan's border posts with Pakistan, this left the Northern Alliance further isolated. Repeated Northern Alliance appeals to U.S. diplomats in Tajikistan, a country that did share a border with those parts of Afghanistan under the Northern Alliance, went unheeded.

Other factors also drove engagement. On April 17, 1998, Bill Richardson, Clinton's ambassador to the United Nations, became the highest-ranking American to visit Afghanistan in 20 years. He credited himself with winning a cease-fire in the civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. There followed some of the most intense fighting of the civil war. The standoff between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance would continue until the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.

The Clinton administration also welcomed Taliban delegations to the United States. The California-based oil company UNOCAL brought Taliban officials to the United States to meet Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth. They broke no new ground: the Taliban defended their treatment of women as being in conformity with Afghan custom. Inderfurth delegated discussion of Bin Laden to a subordinate. Amir Khan Mottaqi, the Taliban's acting minister of Islam and culture, deflected the issue as the Taliban had in all previous meetings but promised that they would "keep their commitment and not allow terrorists to use Afghanistan as a base for terrorism." Ahmad Jan, the acting Taliban minister of mines and industry, added that they had also muzzled Bin Laden, an assertion that went unchallenged despite the fact that Bin Laden had sat for an interview with CNN during the previous year.

The Taliban made a hash of both its assurances. It allowed ABC News to interview Bin Laden on May 28, 1998. Ten weeks later, on August 7, 1998, suicide truck bombers attacked U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, killing more than 200 people and wounding more than 4,000. Thirteen days after that, Clinton ordered a cruise-missile strike on a factory in Sudan and a terrorist training camp in Afghanistan. Any notion that engagement had convinced the Taliban to cease support for terrorism should have evaporated. It didn't.

* * *

The missile strike outraged Mullah Omar. He telephoned Michael Malinkowski, the director of the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Bangladesh bureau at the State Department, denied that Bin Laden had planned terrorism while on Afghan soil, and reiterated that he was "open to dialogue." Malinkowski duly reported that the Taliban were interested in further dialogue, even as he acknowledged that "this is a long way, however, from the Taliban doing the right thing on Bin Laden."

In subsequent months, the Taliban shifted strategy. Rather than stonewall on Bin Laden, they simply told U.S. diplomats what Washington wanted to hear. The good cop was usually Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the Taliban's envoy to the United Nations. In a September 13 meeting in Islamabad, he told Alan Eastham, a senior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy there, that "very few Afghans are in favor of Bin Laden's presence in Afghanistan," and that "eighty percent of the Taliban leadership opposes his presence." (Mujahid also assured the State Department that the Taliban would protect the famous Buddha statues in Bamiyan, which they subsequently and horrifyingly destroyed.)

The bad cop was Mullah Omar, who, less than two weeks later, faxed a letter to the State Department blasting the U.S. fixation on Bin Laden. "If you have objections to our policy or our deeds, or if you call it un-Islamic, that is not right," Mullah Omar wrote. "All Muslims of the world agree this is Islamic, but if you still believe that it is not Islamic, then we can try to convince you [i.e., we can have a dialogue]. Our advice is change your policy." Omar's fax was enough to convince the secretary of state: only three months after the most horrific terrorist attacks on American interests since the 1983 Marine barracks bombing, Albright agreed "to engage in a serious and confidential dialogue with the Taliban through the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad."

On October 11, 1998, William B. Milam, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, met Maulawi Wakil Ahmed, the Taliban foreign minister. Wakil Ahmed repeated the canard that popular sentiment in his country would not allow the Taliban to expel Bin Laden, despite the carnage in Kenya and Tanzania. Nonetheless, the State Department found promise in the discussion, even though a face-to-face meeting with Americans served only to reinforce the Taliban gang's pretensions as a government rather than as an umbrella group for terrorists. Milam found a silver lining in the fact that Wakil Ahmed described Bin Laden as "a serious problem."

"Now is the time to notch up the diplomatic--repeat--diplomatic pressure," Milam wrote. "A political / diplomatic solution to Bin Laden's expulsion from Afghanistan may be a mite more possible now."

The State Department's strategy rested on "persuading" the Taliban to expel Bin Laden, and so the Clinton administration agreed to provide the Taliban with evidence of Bin Laden's culpability. Unfortunately for the State Department's hope that it was dealing with a minimally honest partner, on November 20, 1998, a Taliban court found Bin Laden not guilty of involvement in the East Africa bombings.

Nevertheless, eight days later, Eastham, then the top U.S. diplomat in Pakistan, visited the Taliban's ambassador to meet Wakil Ahmed. "While it is possible that the Taliban are simply playing for time in seeking to reinvigorate the diplomatic track," Eastham wrote, "it is at least possible that they--some of them--are serious about finding a peaceful way out." Eastham and Wakil Ahmed met again the following month, but the Taliban only dug in their heels on Bin Laden. Before long, the Taliban were again giving Bin Laden unfettered access to the media.

Even as the cultivation of the Taliban garden refused to yield even a hint of a green shoot, area experts and former government officials--many of whom were familiar with State Department efforts--actively promoted engagement in their writings and interviews. They encouraged the Clinton administration to differentiate al-Qaeda from the Taliban and equated nuance with sophistication. Rather than see terrorism and terror sponsorship as a black-and-white issue, they urged the White House to see shades of gray. Twice in 1999, for example, in high-profile opinion pieces, Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan, urged the U.S. government to engage the Taliban. In an August 13 New York Times op-ed, for example, he assured the world that the Taliban were as "eager to rid themselves of their bin Laden problem as we are to bring him to justice."

The fiction that the Taliban and al-Qaeda were functionally different should have ended on Christmas Eve 1999, when five Pakistani nationals hijacked an Indian Airlines flight and diverted it to Afghanistan. After the plane landed in Kandahar, the Taliban resupplied the hijackers with weaponry. Nevertheless, in the wake of the hijacking, Inderfurth met senior Taliban officials and opened the session "by emphasizing the importance of continued dialogue, despite differences." The Taliban, however, continued to stonewall.

By this point, the U.S. presidential campaign had begun in earnest, and as rogue regimes often do in election years, the Taliban simply hunkered down and awaited a new U.S. administration. Often, new presidents blame their predecessors rather than America's adversaries for diplomacy's failure. In this case, however, the Taliban would be disappointed. Soon after George W. Bush took office, Taliban Foreign Minister Abdul Wakil Muttawakil sent Secretary of State Colin Powell a letter seeking to restart talks. The answer must have come as a disappointment. The new State Department informed Abdul Hakim Mujahed that the group should close its office in New York.

As this account demonstrates, Obama's statement that the United States ignored Afghanistan until 9/11 is incorrect. In point of fact, the Clinton administration pursued the Taliban with fervor. Over the course of its five-year engagement, however, the Clinton State Department gained nothing. The Taliban had, like many rogue regimes, acted in bad faith. They engaged not to compromise but to buy time. They made many promises but did not keep a single one. The Taliban refused to isolate, let alone expel, Bin Laden, and al-Qaeda metastasized. They exploited American naiveté and sincerity at the ultimate cost of several thousand lives. The report by the 9/11 Commission details how Bin Laden and his deputy, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, hatched the 9/11 plot at a meeting in Tora Bora at a time when U.S. engagement with the Taliban was in full swing.

Obviously, an honest exchange of views between nations is the vital core of foreign relations. But absent any effort to measure its success, through concrete steps taken by the other party that demonstrate sincerity, engagement too often becomes a policy conducted for its own sake rather than for the furtherance of the national interest. In the case of the Taliban engagement, the State Department fell prey to clientitis, the great occupational hazard of diplomacy--the condition that befalls diplomats who confuse their own attempts to achieve a smooth relationship with their host governments for their actual purpose, which is to secure and advance the interests of the United States. It was fantasy to believe that on issues of radical Islam and Afghanistan's governance, U.S. and Pakistani interests could have converged.

The desire to engage meant that more-robust strategies that might have proved more effective and, with the benefit of hindsight, less costly were never attempted. Clinton called off CIA proposals to assassinate Bin Laden. His administration's ineffective 1998 cruise-missile strike following the East Africa bombings, which seems only to have emboldened Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, allows us to consider what might have been had a targeted military strike been attempted under other circumstances. That the Taliban were hosting terrorist training camps on Afghan soil was no secret in the years before al-Qaeda attacked the U.S. Embassies in 1998; indeed, the matter was raised repeatedly during the diplomats' tea with the Taliban. Had Clinton attempted to preempt Bin Laden's evil rather than make a symbolic strike after the fact, which al-Qaeda had sensibly anticipated, the United States might have dealt a crushing blow to Bin Laden and simultaneously forced the Taliban leaders to reconsider the wisdom of their subterfuge.

Obama's willingness to accept the conventional history--we lost Afghanistan because we ignored Afghanistan--is reason for grave concern. The story of Afghanistan in the 1990s is a story of the limits of diplomacy for its own sake. And diplomacy for its own sake is a cornerstone, perhaps the cornerstone, of Obama's foreign policy. And specifically in Afghanistan, he is already signaling a readiness to repeat the mistakes of engagement with the very extremists whose behavior made possible the attacks of 9/11 and who have returned to torment Afghanistan.

During his December 1, 2009, address, Obama declared, "We will support efforts by the Afghan government to open the door to those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens." His chief Afghanistan envoy, Richard Holbrooke, has handpicked a team that includes, among others, Robin Raphel, an architect of pre-9/11 efforts to engage the Taliban. Thus the mistakes of the past may be repeated, with potentially dire consequences, in the very near future.

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.


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