Return of the Taliban’s cheerleader

The Obama administration is demonstrating poor judgement in appointing Robin Raphel to a sensitive position

“Despite nearly universal misgivings about the Taliban movement,” said the senior US state department official, “it must be acknowledged as a significant factor in the Afghan equation and one that will not simply disappear anytime soon.

The Taliban control more than two-thirds of the country; they are Afghan, they are indigenous and, they have demonstrated staying power. The reasons they have succeeded so far have little to do with military prowess or outside military assistance. Indeed, when they have engaged in truly serious fighting, the Taliban have not fared so well.

The real source of their success has been the willingness of many Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, to tacitly trade the unending fighting and chaos for a measure of peace and security, even with severe social restrictions.” [US Embassy in Israel]

And towards the end of her speech, came the memorable line: “If we wish them to moderate their policies, we should engage with them.”

That was Robin Raphel speaking at the United Nations in November 1996. In a chapter in Fundamentalism Reborn, journalist Richard MacKenzie writes:

In a recent Newsweek report, Steve LeVine writes that until Kabul fell, the US administration seemed ‘unconcerned about the Taliban’s growth’. He added, ‘Some midlevel State Department officials applauded the movement’s campaign for law and order, despite the mullahs’ knuckle-dragging views on women’s rights’. Certainly what one staunch critic (in an interview with the author) called a ‘cabal’ at the State Department was not as enlightened as their brothers and sisters at the CIA. Assistant Secretary Robin Raphel and two of her staff gave good impressions of being at least occasional cheer leaders for the Taliban.”

Mr MacKenzie concludes that paragraph on Ms Raphel’s department with this: “In one encounter a few months before the Taliban entered Kabul, a mid-level bureaucrat at the State Department claimed to this writer that ‘You get to know them and you find they really have a great sense of humour’, apparently believing the words he was uttering.” [Fundamentalism Reborn]

“The entire chain of command in Afghanistan”, from Ms Raphel down to the Afghan desk officer, “all retired or were reassigned in the summer of 1997” after Madeleine Albright replaced Warren Christopher as Secretary of State in the second Clinton administration. By 1999, the US acknowledged that the “Taliban are the wrong horse to ride for bringing peace and stability in Afghanistan.”

You would have thought that the United States would have learnt its lessons—not least after the Taliban’s guests conducted some unannounced modifications to the urban landscape in Manhattan and Washington, DC in the autumn of 2001. Almost eight years after 9/11, it turns out that the Obama administration intends to ride the wrong horse again. The idea of engaging with the ‘moderate Taliban’ is back in vogue again.

The potential appointment of Ms Raphel as the special envoy’s special envoy to Af-Pak is ostensibly to monitor US financial assistance to Pakistan under the Kerry-Lugar plan. While it is sensible to assign the job to a Pakistanphile, the prudence of appointing a former lobbyist on Islamabad’s payroll, with a dubious attitude towards the Taliban, to a position that involves fiduciary responsibilities is, to put it mildly, questionable. American taxpayers and their elected representatives in the Senate must scrutinise this appointment. More so because her unstated portfolio might well be to, yet again, engage with the ‘moderate’ Taliban.

Ms Raphel’s anti-India positions (via Raman’s Strategic Analysis)on Jammu & Kashmir in the early 1990s has not endeared her to India. As long as Richard Holbrooke keeps her as far away from India as possible, her appointment need not directly concern New Delhi. If, on the other hand, the Obama administration decides to place her in any role involving relations with India, then it must be treated as an unfriendly move.

66 thoughts on “Return of the Taliban’s cheerleader”

  1. Hi Daveyboy,

    Odd as it may sound to you, I’ve never suggested you shouldn’t comment here. I didn’t, and still don’t, understand what the Nazis have to do with anything that is now going on in South Asia. The association of the Nazis to the Taliban is even less plausible than an association of the Nazis to the US, which is probably why I missed it.

    I also tossed out a couple of issues which are obvious to any American to see how the Indian readers of this blog would react. I think I’ve conclusively established that Indians can be as rude as Americans, and not much else.

    And yes, I was an idiot in missing the fact that the Nazis were introduced to the discussion to compare the Taliban to the Nazis. It’s not the first time I was an idiot, and it won’t be the last. But I’m sorry, the Taliban are even less like the Nazis than the US is. Nitin’s post, if you read it, is actually about US diplomacy, not the Taliban. So comparing the Taliban to the Nazis is really irrelevant to this blog post.

    So good luck and goodbye,

    Ray,

  2. @ Ray

    “Indians have no more right to object to the assignment of a US diplomat to Pakistan than I have to object to India’s diplomatic assignments to their embassy in China.”

    Yes. But India is no US. And China is no Pakistan. A fair comparison would be if the Indian army was in a fundamentalist Mexico (hypothetically of course) and Mexican terrorists attacked American citizens with impunity. On top of this India then appointed an envoy to the region who played a part in encouraging the fundamentalist network in Mexico and who was noticebaly hostile to American interests. What would you say then you nitwit?

    You see Ray, it is this chronic inability of Ameicans to think logically and see events in anything but black and white that is responsible for this mess. Your example was unhelpful, a waste of time and inaccurate. Please don’t bother us with your shenanigans anymore. Just stick to your blog and be merry till another 9/11 occurs.

  3. Hi Arvind,

    By the way, if you got the impression that I thought posters to this site shouldn’t criticize US foreign policy, either you screwed up or I did.

    After all, I criticize US foreign policy a lot, actually. I also read the web sites of both B.Raman and Vikram Sood, who are often pretty critical of US foreign policy.

    But I do think that Robin Raphel is probably personally blamed by many Indians interested in US foreign policy for issues of policy that were decided by her superiors. I also think, more from my experience in the US than my reading of Indian web sites, that the Nazis are dragged into everything, even when Nazism is totally irrelevant to the issue at hand, and am too easily irritated by references to the Nazis for that reason.

    Ray,

  4. @Ray

    First you say

    “I also tossed out a couple of issues which are obvious to any American to see how the Indian readers of this blog would react. I think I’ve conclusively established that Indians can be as rude as Americans, and not much else.”

    Then you proceed to say

    “It’s not the first time I was an idiot, and it won’t be the last.

    Ahem…

    It seems you’ve also conclusively proven one more thing. That the second statement in quotes is a natural corollary of the first one.

    Great. Now you can publish your findings in a foreign affairs publication and pleasure yourself to your findings.

    Talk about assumptions… How did you assume that the people posting here were Indians?!? Talk about prejudice. Anyway, see ya later (honkey/cracker??)

  5. Hi everyone,

    1. Please stop the personal attacks immediately. I’ve noticed a tendency among new commenters to either get into tangential discussions, or resort to ad hominem attacks, or both. While some of this is tolerable and might even make the discussion more exciting, it has clearly gone overboard in this, and the last few posts.

    2. Please enclose links within valid HTML. It says so in the caveat above.

    3. Please be brief. You’ll be surprised that more people read and appreciate what you are saying if you say so in a few crisp sentences.

    5. Chill! Have a good weekend.

  6. Thanks Nitin.

    While the content quality is still high, the tone and tenor on comment threads nowadays approach rediff MBs.

    rgds,
    Jai

  7. @ Ray

    “But I do think that Robin Raphel is probably personally blamed by many Indians interested in US foreign policy for issues of policy that were decided by her superiors.”

    Ms Raphel was the Assitant Secretary of South and Central Asian Affairs i.e the HEAD for these affairs at the State Department. So she’s not an ordinary “cog in the wheel”, let’s get that straight. I do partly agree with the fact that her thinking is “shared” by the establishment. Hence my question “where are the neocons” in my initial post. But that does not mean she gets a pass for she is the one who shapes policies. Not to mention SHE IS THE ESTABLISHMENT in some sense.

    Have a nice weekend.

  8. If we assume that the US state dept does not consist of stupid people, then the entire claim of fighting “the enemy” is a bogus claim made by the US State Department since the enemy is being funded nicely by the US government. So the war is being fought in Afghanisthan for reasons that has nothing to do with fighting terrorism in Afghanisthan or anywhere else.

    IMO, this is closer to the truth than anything else.

    The US was pretty chummy behind the scenes despite Albright’s public fulminations and the Unocal pipeline thing has been pretty well documented. Even John Walker Lindh, so called American taleban, believed he was fighting on the side that had American support (which it did) right up to 9/11. Uncle Sam’s enemies and allies are quickly made and discarded, particularly when it comes to the part of the world that is ‘not the West’.

    I don’t agree that the Taleban are anything like the Nazis. Islamofacism may be a fancy term and the Taleban may have espoused pretty despicable ideas, but that does not make them fascist in the same sense as the Nazis.

  9. Hi Arvind,

    Sad to say, I pretty much have to agree with this:

    “Ms Raphel was the Assitant Secretary of South and Central Asian Affairs i.e the HEAD for these affairs at the State Department. So she’s not an ordinary “cog in the wheel”, let’s get that straight. I do partly agree with the fact that her thinking is “shared” by the establishment. Hence my question “where are the neocons” in my initial post. But that does not mean she gets a pass for she is the one who shapes policies. Not to mention SHE IS THE ESTABLISHMENT in some sense.”

    Unfortunately you are right here She was a policy maker, I think it is pretty clear that the policies she favored were both disadvantageous to India and in the long run not in the interest of the US.

    Based on the record, _I_ wouldn’t hire her and send her to Pakistan. But I’m not the Obama administration, there aren’t a lot of neutral or pro-India retired State Department people with her level of experience, and I hope that the fact that she tilts toward Pakistan will help her succeed in the job they put her in.

    Have a good weekend.

    Ray,

  10. Couldn’t resist this one. Weekly Standard huh. A source that is a beacon of objectivity LOLZ. Even Bill Kristol would be surprised.

    Arvind, nice try – if you had tried to debate the points raised by Steven Schwartz instead of ad hominem attacks on his or Weekly Standard’s objectivity, I may actually respect you.

    The even more funny thing that you imply is as though other news magazines are “objective” or non-biased. Pray please tell me who these beacons of objectivity are ?

    Why dont you read “arch neo con” Christopher Hitchens’ defense of the term Islamofascism and then get back to us all about how objective he is.

    (Assuming you know who Hitchens is and his political background)

  11. Hi,

    Look, US foreign policy has a tendency to swing around wildly.

    Under Warren Christopher {and Robin Raphel} the US backed its old ally Pakistan, not noticing that the reason the US was an ally of Pakistan was that both wanted to contain the Soviet Union, which no longer existed.

    Madeleine Albright came in and noticed that since the US is a predominantly Christian superpower allied to Israel, Islamic jihad was not in its interest. So she changed the policy and got rid of Robin Raphel, et al. The US adopted a position that from a long range looked kind of neutral on India-Pakistan.

    George Bush came in, 9/11 happened and the neocons took over. They thought we could reconstruct Afghanistan and Iraq as pro-American, neutral on Israel democracies. They loved India because it was democratic, willing to give US corporations what they wanted, and willing to give a lot of non-military aid to Afghanistan. They also failed miserably in Afghanistan and Iraq, leaving Obama one hell of a mess when he took over.

    In response to this mess, Obama seems to have adopted the view that the only option the US has is to appease Pakistan. Because the US owes a trillion and a half dollars to China, and China backs Pakistan, he may be right.

    I’m not a particularly big fan of the current position, because I think the only strong common interest the US and Pakistan had was containing the Soviet Union, which is now gone. So I’d like to go back to Madeleine Albright, who was way too aggressive for my taste but not an idiot, either. Or maybe look for something new.

    But it does not make sense to analyze these wild swings without considering the influence of the history behind them. The US was pro-Pakistan because in the 1980’s, Pakistan was a reliable ally of the US and India was nominally neutral but in fact an unreliable quasi-ally of the Soviet Union. The US stopped being pro-Pakistan because it noticed that being for Islamic jihad didn’t make a lot of sense if you were also pro-Israel. The Bush administration’s moves happened because partly because of US corporate influence, but mostly as a result of 9/11. The return to Warren Christopher era positions is the result of the US realizing that it is very overextended as a result of the Bush administration’s moves.

    Anyway, being for the neocons or against them is kind of irrelevant at this point – the US doesn’t have the strength to pursue a neocon strategy, whether or not it would be abstractly desirable. The US needs to stop jerking both Indians and Pakistanis around and adopt a fairly consistent, pretty much neutral strategy. Given the way we run own foreign policy, maybe we shouldn’t be offering advice to India and Pakistan:-).

    This is pretty much my position, for what it is worth {probably not much}. it depends mostly on events in the US which I kind of understand, not evens in Pakistan or India. Sorry it is so long, and sorry it doesn’t have much to do with Robin Raphel. But as long as we’re wandering far afield, it seemed appropriate to state my position.

    Ray,

  12. @ Ray

    “In response to this mess, Obama seems to have adopted the view that the only option the US has is to appease Pakistan. Because the US owes a trillion and a half dollars to China, and China backs Pakistan, he may be right.”

    First Chinese relationship with US is highly overrated IMHO. They cannot and will not replace US IMHO. They just do not have the capability.

    Now with regards to appeasement, we need to wait till the fat lady sings on that one, don’t we? Remember Obama has intensified the drone attacks that first started towards the end of 2007. Also I don’t know if you followed his campaign or not. But if you did, you would have heard this statement “If US had actionable intelligence and Pak cannot or will not act, then WE will”. I almost spilled my coffee on hearing that. Now u could dismiss it as “campaign rhetoric”. But I still saw no NEED as to why he said it unless he meant it.

    Also looks like this massive base is gonna be in Peshawar. Right in the EYE of the HURRICANE. Already there is news that US screens almost everyone who goes in and comes out of Pak. Not to mention US uses Shamshi Air force base in Balochistan to fly Predator drones according to its wish.

    All these in mind, I don’t think US is “appeasing” Pak. Instead US seems to be planning for a “soft invasion” of Pak which already qualifies as a banana republic in all ways. I also think US is in it for the long haul with regards to Afg (this has already been suggested by Center for American Progress who advocate US stay for at least 10 years and also Center for New American Security, both pretty influential Democratic think tanks not to mention CFR or CSIS) . My personal opinion and would like to be proved wrong. We’ll see.

  13. Hi Arvind,

    I agree you’ve got a case that the US may be planning a soft invasion of Pakistan. As you point out, plenty of liberal imperialists are pushing for it. The huge new one billion embassy and the apparent plan to have some private company import a large number of APC’s would tend to support this idea.

    If they do, I may end up out on the street protesting against Obama and the Pakistan war in a couple of years {I’m an old guy and helped organize protests against the Vietnam War in 1969, 1970 and 1971}. I think the US needs to put a lot of money into research, technological development and new capital investment in a variety of areas. To put it bluntly, here in the US we need to catch up to Japan and stay ahead of India {no offense} and China, technically. The Indian students I met at CMU were as smart or smarter than I was, though I was richer than they were. They convinced me that in a generation we won’t be richer than India, unless we work to stay ahead. A war in Pakistan and Afghanistan is going to kill a lot of people and cost a lot of money, and not do diddly for the long term prospects of the US.

    Ray,

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