Michael Rubin: Taking Tea with the Taliban

Roundup: Talking About History

[Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is completing a history of U.S. engagement with rogue regimes.]

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.

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...

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