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.