The demise of U.S. diplomacy

Published : Jan 16, 2004 00:00 IST

Taliban militiamen posted at the Afghan Red Crescent Society survey the damage to a building hit by U.S. missiles in Kandahar, November 1, 2001, on the 26th day of the U.S.-led air campaign in Afghanistan. - BANARAS KHAN/AFP

Taliban militiamen posted at the Afghan Red Crescent Society survey the damage to a building hit by U.S. missiles in Kandahar, November 1, 2001, on the 26th day of the U.S.-led air campaign in Afghanistan. - BANARAS KHAN/AFP

Al Qaeda: Casting A Shadow of Terror by Jason Burke; I.B. Tauris, distributors Rupa & Co.; pages 292; 12.95.

Sir, permit me to observe that the use of force alone is but temporary. It may subdue for a moment, but it does not remove the necessity of subduing again and a nation is not governed which is perpetually to be conquered.

My next objection is its uncertainty. Terror is not always the effect of force; and an armament is not a victory. If you do not succeed you are without resource, for conciliation failing, force remains, but force failing, no further hope of reconciliation is left. Power and authority are sometimes bought by kindness, but they can never be begged as alms by an impoverished and defeated violence.

A further objection to force is that you impair the object by your very endeavours to preserve it. The thing you fought for is not the thing which you recover; but depreciated, sunk, wasted and consumed in the contest.

- Edmund Burke's speech on `Conciliation with rebellious America' in the House of Commons on March 2, 1775.

THE United States has ruined and devastated two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, without fulfilling any of the objectives it professed to accomplish. These are ancient lands whose noble past and present plight stir deep feelings. It will be long before they are "pacified". Both are being "ruled" by men handpicked by the U.S. - the disreputable Chalabi in Baghdad and in Kabul, Hamid Karzai, a man of quality but whose writ extends no further than the building in which he functions, protected by American guards.

Both the invasions were illegal. Doubtless the regimes they ousted were in different ways repulsive. Saddam was infinitely worse. However, it was for their own peoples to overthrow them, not for the U.S. to do so in pursuance of its imperial ambitions - with Britain as a very junior partner. Anthony Scrivener, Q.C., opined in The Times (October 11, 2001), London, that the evidence in the British dossier on "Responsibility for the terrorist atrocities in the U.S., 11 September, 2001" would not stand up in court (vide also V.S. Mani's able critique, "The Fifth Afghan War and International Law", Economic and Political Weekly, January 26, 2002). Thomas Powers has thoroughly exposed the lies retailed by the U.S. and Britain for their "invasion and conquest of Iraq". ("The Vanishing Case for War", The New York Review of Books, December 4, 2003).

He has, however, raised issues far transcending the U.S. government's mendacity, the Central Intelligence Agency's pliability and "the readiness of Congress to ignore its own doubts and go along". He refers to "something" that has been "going on deep in the American psyche since the beginning of the Cold War". It is the suspension of doubt whenever the government exploits for its own political ends a particular incident by invoking "national security" while claiming "secret intelligence". Congress voted billions to meet "imaginary threats - routinely backed up by evidence too secret to reveal".

Once public opinion and the legislature are made captive and professionalism in the foreign service undermined, politicians in power are left free to act as they please. Steadily, the U.S. foreswore diplomacy in favour of recourse to armed force. The phenomenon, however, is not peculiar to the U.S. The results of its forays are there for all to see. Saddam Hussein's capture and humiliating treatment have not stilled the Iraqi resistance. The Economist, which supported the invasion, summed up (November 1, 2003) the results tersely: "Their targets have been painfully well chosen. The insurgents have killed the U.N.'s top man, forcing most U.N. international staff to flee the country. They have killed Mohammad Baqral-Hakim, the well-respected Shia cleric-cum-politician who had seemed most willing to cooperate with the Americans. They have sabotaged the northern oil pipeline on which much of the country's oil revenue depends. They have killed many of the Iraqi policemen to whom the Americans had hoped to hand over more responsibility for security. And their audacious rocket attack on the heavily protected Rashid hotel, just when Paul Wolfowitz, U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary, was in residence, showed that no target is beyond their reach," not even the U.S. pro consul, Paul Bremer, who escaped narrowly.

Iraq's Shias suffered under the despot's rule. But they do not welcome the invaders. Muqtada al-Sadr, a respected cleric "is openly defiant". If the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council is "closeted much of the time behind concrete barricades in their Baghdad compound", in Kabul Karzai is protected by American, not Afghani, guards.

Two years after the U.S. invasion, opium production in Afghanistan has "soared 19-fold and the number of children going to school has plummeted as poor security has closed nearly all schools". The Taliban has de facto control of "at least three districts in the south-east". There is no central representative there. (Nicholas D. Kristoff, The International Herald Tribune, November 17, 2003). Karzai's regime is "dominated by a small group from the Panjshir Valley in the north, where other groups like the Tajiks predominate". The Northern Alliance dominates the regime. Taliban's base is in the majority Pashtu-speaking areas. Kabul's Sikhs, who once controlled nearly 60 per cent of the trade, testify: "Contrary to popular impression, we felt more secure when Taliban was at the helm. I scarce remember Taliban meeting out any injustice to us" (Asian Age, November 26).

Rahimullah Yusufzai is by far the best reporter on and analyst of Afghan affairs. He predicted two years ago that the Taliban "remain one of the most closely knit groups and could be easily mobilised as and when the circumstances become favourable... . Many Afghans are already nostalgic about the peace and security during the Taliban era" (Newsline, January 2002). Now, even Karzai has begun to woo them: "Ordinary Taliban are also people of Afghanistan... we respect them... But there is a vast difference between terrorists and the Taliban." If his patrons had but recognised this distinction, his people would have been spared yet another foreign invasion. Apparently a secret channel was opened between Karzai and the former Taliban Foreign Minister, Wakil Ahmed Mutawakkil. There have been reports of secret talks at Kandahar Airport between him and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Richard Armitage during the latter's visit in the first week of October. Both, the Taliban's former head of state Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, remain elusive.

What has now come to light is that neither invasion was necessary. Quiet persistent diplomacy could have accomplished results. The International Herald Tribune of November 7 carried an exceptionally informed report by James Risen of The New York Times on Iraqi overtures to the U.S. before the war, based on documents and interviews. Iraq offered to: (1) help in the peace process in Palestine; (2) grant "U.S. oil concessions"; (3) consent that "Americans could send 2,000 FBI agents to look wherever they wanted" and (4) "hold elections within the next two years". The offer came "from the highest levels of the Iraqi government". The CIA was in touch with the Iraqi Intelligence Service. Its chief of operations, Hassan al-Obeidi, spoke in a "begging" tone in early March. He as well as his director, Jalil Habbush al-Tikriti, were prepared to meet U.S. representatives in Beirut. "Such a meeting has Saddam Hussein's clearance". The U.S. was not interested. It invaded Iraq on March 20.

Evidence that has now come to light confirms what diplomats in the know kept saying all along - Mullah Omar and bin Laden were on the verge of a split. The U.S. attack on Afghanistan on August 20, 1998, by firing cruise missiles, brought them together. It was flamboyantly called "Operation Infinite Reach". Even in 2001 a satisfactory solution was possible. To go back further in the past, the Taliban was keen on friendly relations with the U.S. but was miffed when its overtures were refused; not without scorn.

In the White House then was President Clinton, brilliant, morally flawed and cynical to the core. His Secretary of State was Madeleine Albright, vain, inept and simplistically arrogant. He needed the attack to divert attention from the Monica Lewinsky affair. The feminist in Albright loathed the Taliban. The emotion ennobled her. But a Foreign Minister who allows it to affect judgment on policy issues of such consequence proclaims his or her unfitness for the office.

Ahmed Rashid's work Taliban provides the essential background. The year 1997 was a fateful year. The Taliban regime negotiated with both the American Unocal and its rival, the Argentinean Bridas Corporation on a gas pipeline project running from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, across Afghanistan. Unocal, a huge corporation running a global oil business, tended to depend on the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad. Within hours of the Taliban's capture of Kabul on September 20, 1996, the U.S. announced its recognition and retracted it. One Taliban delegation went to Buenos Aires in February, another to Washington D.C. in December 1997 where they sought U.S. recognition of the regime. August 1998 changed all that. The Unocal withdrew.

"The U.S. policy turnaround from late 1997 to today was first driven exclusively by the effective campaign of American feminists against the Taliban. As always with the Clinton Agenda, domestic political concerns outweighed foreign policy-making and the wishes of allies. Clinton only woke up to the Afghanistan problem when American women knocked on his door. President and Mrs. Clinton had relied heavily on the American female vote in the 1996 elections and on female support during the Monica Lewinsky saga. They could not afford to annoy liberal American women. Moreover, once Hollywood got involved - its liberal stars were key financiers and supporters of the Clinton campaign and the Vice-President - Albert Gore was anxious to retain their support for his own election bid; there was no way the U.S. could be seen as soft on the Taliban."

Earlier, at a closed-door meeting on November 11, 1996, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel said: "The Taliban control more than two-thirds of the country, they are Afghan, they are indigenous, they have demonstrated staying power. The real source of their success has been the willingness of many Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, to tacitly trade unending fighting and chaos for a measure of peace and security, even with severe social restrictions. It is not in the interest of Afghanistan or any of us here that the Taliban be isolated."

In November 1997, on the steps of Pakistan's Foreign Office, Albright called the Taliban "despicable" for their gender policies. Despite that Mullah Omar called the State Department, two days after the missile attack, to say that it had been counterproductive. Michael Malinowski, senior member of the State Department Bureau of South Asian Affairs, asked him to deliver bin Laden and proposed a formal dialogue. "Omar agreed to talk," Albright records in her memoirs Madam Secretary.

A series of meetings between the U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan William Milam and the Taliban began, stretching for the next two years. "Washington appeared to have a bin Laden policy but not an Afghanistan policy," Ahmed Rashid remarks.

There was, in truth, a deep fissure between him, bin Laden and the Taliban.

JASON BURKE'S book is one of the most informative and insightful on bin Laden and his outfit Al Qaeda. He writes: "Bin Laden's relationship with the Taliban had never been easy. His Arab followers tended to look down on the Afghans as unlettered and uncivil without the necessary experience, education and intelligence to understand contemporary politics. In a letter recovered from a computer used by senior `Al Qaeda' figures, one complained that the Afghans change their ideas and positions all the time and `would do anything for money'. For their part, Afghans, even Islamic activists, were generally resentful of the foreigners who had come to their country. Many senior Taliban figures were angry at the unwanted attention bin Laden was bringing them. Among the junior ranks of the Taliban, few fighters knew who bin Laden was. A few days after the bombs in east Africa, I asked the Commander of the security detail at the Ministry of Defence in Kabul for his view on the Saudi `master terrorist'. He had no idea who I was talking about. Shortly after the Taliban captured Kabul, bin Laden sent a deputation to Mullah Omar in Kandahar. It received a cool reception...

"In April 1998, the Taliban received a high-level American delegation in Kabul. In retrospect, this was the high point of relations between Washington and the movement. Two months later Mullah Omar met Prince Turki al-Faisal, the veteran head of Saudi intelligence, and agreed on a secret deal to hand over bin Laden for trial in Saudi Arabia for treason, a crime punishable by death. Mullah Omar asked only that a joint commission of Afghan and Saudi Arabian ulemas be set up to formulate a correct legal justification for the expulsion. The press conference a month earlier, during which bin Laden publicised his World Islamic Front against Jews and Crusaders, had particularly annoyed Mullah Omar, not least because he only learned of it from a report on the BBC Pashto language service. In July, the Taliban leaders sent an envoy to Saudi Arabia to reaffirm the deal and replaced bin Laden's team of Arab bodyguards with Afghans loyal to Mullah Omar.

"But `Operation Infinite Reach' changed everything. Three weeks after the missile strike, two Saudi Arabian jets landed on the Kandahar airstrip. One carried Prince Turki, the other, full of commandos was there to carry bin Laden back. In a stormy meeting Mullah Omar reneged on his promise to hand over the Saudi dissident... . Though Turki returned to Saudi Arabia empty-handed, Omar was still profoundly aggrieved with bin Laden too." Relations between them remained estranged.

Jason Burke's book, based on impeccable sources, describes how the hosts envisaged a quiet riddance of the troublesome guest: "The Taliban's solution to the problem was to have bin Laden `disappear' and claim, fairly implausibly, they did not know where he was. Given that it was able to locate him at Farm Hadda, the former Soviet collective farm in June 1999, it is likely that U.S. and other intelligence agencies were not fooled either. The Taliban then issued a series of announcements claiming that they had taken away bin Laden's satellite phones and that he had promised not to involve himself in any overseas activities. Bin Laden's tactics had been impeccable. The missile strikes meant that the Taliban could not expel him without appearing to be either frightened of America or stooges of the Saudi Arabians. His base, though uncomfortable, was secure. The next step would be to turn the Taliban from reluctant hosts into allies and partners.

"There were other dynamics forcing the Taliban and bin Laden closer together. Towards the end of the decade, Pakistani support for their chosen proxies in Afghanistan began to wane. By 1998, there was increasing concern in Islamabad about the effect the example set by the Taliban in Afghanistan was having on Pakistan's volatile and lawless border areas and the haven they were offering to violent Pakistani groups that had begun targeting the Pakistani state."

In March 2001 Pakistan's Interior Minister Moinuddin Hyder revealed the two proposals he had received from the Taliban during his visit - trial of bin Laden before an "Islamic Shariat Court in Afghanistan" or trial by a jury of three religious scholars, "one each from Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and any other Islamic country". The U.S. would "have to produce their evidence establishing Osama bin Laden's hand in the bombings in Kenya and other places" (The Herald, March 2001).

After 9/11, the issue acquired added urgency. On September 20, the Ulema Council in Kabul recommended that bin Laden be asked to leave the country "voluntarily", Rahimullah Yusufzai reported (News, Sept. 21, 2001). He added: "This is, however, not the first time that there is a talk of Osama departing from Afghanistan. Twice in recent years, the issue was seriously considered and dropped on account of the impossible task to find a country that could provide refuge to Osama. Last year, the Saudi-born Islamist offered to leave but was unable to go anywhere.

"Osama reportedly told Mullah Omar that he wanted to leave so that Afghanistan is not made to suffer further due to his presence. Mullah Omar promptly responded to the offer and said the Taliban won't stop him if he had made up his mind to leave Afghanistan voluntarily. In fact, he ordered the Taliban to facilitate Osama's departure."

Another informed report proves how ruinous and unnecessary the U.S. invasion was. David Ottaway and Joe Stephens of Los Angeles Times-Washington Post reported that a U.S.-Taliban deal fell through because of the U.S. "demand that bin Laden face trial in the U.S." (The Telegraph, October 30, 2001). Earlier, President George Bush "rejected another Taliban offer to give up bin Laden to a neutral third country". Apparently, even "a gift carpet for Bush from Omar" in March did not impress him.

Milton Bearden, a former CIA station chief in Afghanistan, believed that "the Taliban more than once set bin Laden up for capture by the U.S. and telegraphed their intent by saying he was `lost'."

Alan Cullison and Andrew Higgins of The Wall Street Journal reveal that Omar had proposed a Saudi-Afghan Commission of jurists "to formulate a justification for the expulsion... . In preparation the Taliban replaced Osama's team of bodyguards with Afghans loyal to Mullah Omar". The missiles attack repaired the breach.

On September 11, 2003, the National Security Archive put out its Electronic Briefing Book No. 97 as the 7th Volume in the September 11 source books series. Entitled "The Taliban File" and edited by a research assistant, Sajit Gandhi, it comprises 32 declassified official documents from 1994 to 2001, which he had obtained through the U.S. Freedom of Information Act. The NSA is a dedicated non-governmental no-profit centre and library of documents on security issues. Sajit Gandhi's lucid introduction sums up the contents - Pakistan's support to the Taliban, the U.S' dealings with them and much else, besides. Its prime supporter was Nasirullah Babar, Benazir Bhutto's Interior Minister who dreamt of a "highway to Central Asia". She was privy to the support. The U.S. Consul in Peshawar predicted in November 1994: "It is very possible that their backers may find that they have created a tiger that is more than willing to take independent action and not be anyone's tool."

He reported: "The strong support the Taliban receive from the Afghan people reflects popular frustration with the party leaders and a strong desire for peace and stability." Pakistan's support was manifest.

The U.S. Embassy and Peshawar Consulate officials met representatives of the Taliban on February 13, 1995 in Kandahar. The Taliban asked for opening of a U.S. Consulate in the city. "A Taliban Insider" told the Islamabad Embassy that it desired "good relations with the U.S. and the United Nations, which they perceive as unbiased, but doubt the motivations of Saudi Arabia and the Pakistan government". He disapproved of Saudi attempts "to interfere in Afghan religious matters", that of Pakistan "to interfere in the internal affairs" and of the ISI's attempt to treat Afghanistan "like another province". He sought U.S. and U.N. help.

When in April 1996, Robin Raphel toured the region, Pakistan's Army Chief Gen. Jehangir Karamat described the Taliban as "a millstone around our necks". The U.S. Embassy reported: "Taliban leaders asked A/S Raphel to help improve their image in the international community. They denied being human rights violators and claimed to have opened many more schools in the area under their control than had existed previously. Differences of culture lay at the heart of much of the misunderstanding, they alleged: `In France you cannot wear the veil, by law, and here women have to, by law,' Maulavi Motaqi commented. On the contrary, they noted, the Taliban had within two years brought peace and security to half of Afghanistan: Soon the whole country would be safe and at peace. God willing."

In September 1996, after Kabul fell to the Taliban, Secretary of State Warren Christopher asked the Embassy in Pakistan to inform Kabul: "We hope you will propose soon an envoy to represent your government in Washington". Also, ask them "Do you know the location of ex-Saudi Financier and Radical Islamist Osama bin Laden? We had heard previously that he was in the Eastern Provinces. His continued presence there would not, we believe, serve Afghanistan's interests."

Another issue but only if asked: "We have embassy property in Kabul. For which we seek your protection. We would like to re-open our embassy here, when security permits. We are considering when we could take this step. In the meantime, we would like to make frequent trips to Kabul to stay in contact with your government." The Taliban denied knowledge of "the whereabouts" of bin Laden.

U.S. Ambassador Thomas Simons met Taliban's Acting Foreign Minister Mohammed Ghaus on November 8, 1996. He thanked the U.S. for its help in the past against the former Soviet Union, accused Russian, Iran and India of interference in Afghan affairs and sought U.N. protection against them. The Ambassador assured him that "the Americans are most religious people in the Western world... they have great respect for Islam" but oppose imposition of one's interpretation of "the Will of God" on others. Ghaus made three requests - recognition of the "interim government"; receipt of its delegation by the U.S. and despatch of a U.S. delegation to Kabul.

There is a full report of Assistant Secretary of State Karl Inderfurth's talks on December 8, 1997, with the Taliban delegation in Washington D.C. They expressed "the Taliban's wish for good relations with the U.S." Inderfurth said that the U.S. "attitude... would be influenced by Taliban's behaviour relating to medical care, education and opportunities made available to women". Had the U.S. ever before put such conditions to recognition? The delegation expressed resentment that the ousted Rabbani regime still retained the Afghan seat in the U.N. General Assembly and repeated the request for reopening the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. As for bin Laden, he was a guest they had inherited from the earlier regime. It was the Taliban that raised the pipeline issue, but the U.S. stalled, citing security reasons.

The delegation submitted a 10-point non-paper, which concluded: "The Islamic state believes the opponents are creating misunderstanding between the Islamic state and the USA as well as other friendly countries. Therefore, the Islamic state wants the U.S. government to restart its Embassy in Kabul in order to have first hand information about the situation. This will also help open up a vista of cooperation on wide-ranging matters between the two friendly countries and peoples."

A Defence Intelligence Agency cable of October 2, 2001 predicted: "Eventually the Taliban and Al Qaeda will war with each other... Al Qaeda have not integrated with Afghans in the Taliban." It warned "the gravest apprehension at this point is the lack of clear distinction or understanding between Afghans, United Front (The Northern Alliance, Taliban and Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda".

The cable added: "To place the information in context, the remarks are based on the principle that the debate is about a war rather than a single or multiple strike resolution. If this is so and the present focus is on recognising the enemy and searching for the enemy's centre of gravity, the most serious danger lies in using Western points of reference and not the enemies. If the West relies on using its points of reference, then the balance of resources will be given over to searching for what Westerners most easily recognise. In this the obvious choice is nation state involvement. It offers Westerners fixed targets that can be easily engaged in the manner we are best suited for and most comfortable with.... It is a war fought on two fronts: one against material assets and the other in the minds of men. While the reduction of material assets and resources must play a part in the war concentrating on them alone cannot deliver long-term security. If the concentration of effort is upon the material front it misses a vital point. It is the most visible, not the most important. It means the enemy will have successfully drawn Western planning and policy away from where it should be strongest. The minds of men front. Ultimately this is the largest front. The hardest to fight, and the hardest to win."

Jason Burke's work makes precisely this point. Al Qaeda is not "a cohesive and structured" body; it is a union of "freelance operators" driven by wounded pride. The fight against Al Qaeda is "a battle for hearts and mind. And it is a battle we, and our allies in the Muslim world, are losing" - thanks to the U.S.

A Department of Defence Cable of October 4, 2001, well before Operation Parakram, cited a source who "said neither Indian nor Pakistani military forces were conducting dry season training manoeuvres near the border this year. Pakistan's only concern with India is the situation in Kashmir. In the aftermath of the serious car bomb incident in Indian Kashmir, (he) said Pakistan leaders are concerned that the U.S. will agree to India's demands that Kashmir be treated as a global terrorism problem. He maintained that Indian leaders are now feeling politically and militarily strong. They are likely to exploit the situation by actively lobbying the international community over Kashmir. (He) said Pakistani leaders also expect that India might take some military action in Kashmir during the current crisis."

By then the war in Afghanistan was in full swing. To India's dismay, Pakistan had regained America's affections. The war might well have been averted if the U.S. had patiently pursued the diplomatic option. U.S. recognition of the Taliban would have strengthened moderates like Mullah Mohammed Rabbani who loathed bin Laden.

Jaswant Singh, now Finance Minister, promises to tell all about his interaction with the Taliban at Kandahar in December 1999 (Indian Express, November 11, 2003). One hopes he will deliver on the promise. He had said on January 1, 2000, after the Kandahar trip: "We received cooperation from the Taliban throughout the episode" (The Hindu, January 2, 2000). The U.S. invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan should sober all those who are inebriated with military might. "Brute force without wisdom falls by its own weight" Horace, Odes: IV, 65).

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