How America courted the Taliban

by Ishtiaq Ahmad

Pakistan Observer, 20 October 2001

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),,  1 March 2002 


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Just look at the irony of the situation: The Bush administration is today demolishing the very force the Clinton administration had courted for years on behalf of the US oil barons, one of which is President Bush himself. This is a tale of duplicity.

For years, US Oil Company UNOCAL with its Saudi partner Delta, competed with the Argentinean rival, Birdas, to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan. And for that, it collaborated with the Taliban authorities in Afghanistan.

As for the US government, it wanted UNOCAL to build the oil and gas pipelines from Central Asian states to Pakistan through Afghanistan so that the vast untapped oil and gas reserves in the Central Asian and Caspian region could be transported to markets in South Asia, South-East Asia Far East and the Pacific.

Consequently, the Clinton administration ignored the rise of the Taliban from October 1994 onwards, with the active backing of its allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Especially after the fall of Kabul in September 1996, Clinton administration officials openly lobbied for the UNOCAL before Taliban authorities.

It was only after the August 1998 bombing of the two US embassies in East Africa and the consequent cruise missile attack on the alleged terrorist camps in Afghanistan of Al-Qaida, the organization headed by Osama bin Laden that the US official contact with the Taliban was restricted, as per official US claims, to the provision of millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance and the visit of a number of US officials to Kabul until a couple of months before the September 11 terrorist strikes against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.. As for UNOCAL, it took three months after the August 1998 terrorist act and US military response—that is, December 1998—to withdraw from the Cent-Gas consortium the US oil company itself had organized to build a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan’s old Daulatabad gas field to Pakistan through Afghanistan.

The United States was led to believe by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan that a Taliban regime would be able to herald an era of stable peace in Afghanistan, which did not occur as the Northern Alliance never allowed the Taliban to rule the country without any military challenge. Washington also misjudged the Taliban resolve on the human rights front, hoping they might soften their stand on women rights in the wake of the progress in the UNOCAL deal, and the millions of dollars of financial benefits for them it entailed.

So did the UNOCAL, which had donated $900,000 to the Centre of Afghanistan Studies at the University of Omaha, Nebraska—and much more. The said Centre set up a training and humanitarian aid programme for the Afghans, opening a school in Kandahar, which began to train some 400 Afghan teachers, electricians, carpenters and pipe-fitters to help UNOCAL to lay the pipeline. This was in addition to millions of dollars of US official assistance to Taliban authorities as humanitarian assistance. The Bush administration contributed significantly to the humanitarian relief effort in Afghanistan in helping the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) prior to the September 11 tragedy.

As recently as July this year, Christina Rocca, the US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia met the Taliban officials in Islamabad and announced $43 million in food and shelter aid, brining to $124 the US contribution to the IDPs this year alone. Since the humanitarian assistance is spent by the Taliban, without any accountability, the renewed US contacts with the Taliban, including a visit by seven US officials to Kabul in late April preceded by another visit by three US officials earlier in that month, before the terror struck America on September 11 led to media speculations about a shift in the US policy away from a single-focus on the Osama issue towards an approach based on a cautious engagement with Taliban even as they were under stringent sanctions by Washington and the UN Security Council.

The US dealings with the Taliban, from their emergence in October 1994 to the August 1998 bombing of US embassies, leave little doubt as to why such speculations should not arise in response to renewed US contacts with the radical Islamic militia even if the official US explanation about such contacts is that they are guided by nothing but humanitarian concerns in Afghanistan.

When Kabul fell to Taliban in September 1996, the US State Department announced it would establish diplomatic relations with Taliban by sending a diplomat in Kabul. State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said the US found “nothing objectionable” in the steps taken by the Taliban to impose Islamic law. Senator Hank Brown, a supporter of the UNOCAL project, said, “The good part of what has happened is that one of the factions at least seems capable of developing a government in Kabul.” As for the UNOCAL, its Vice –President Miller called the Taliban’s success a “positive development.”

After capturing Kabul, as Taliban started their northward military push, top US officials continued to pay regular visits to Kabul. They included former US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel, her successor Karl Inderfurth, Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, and the US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson. The US policy towards Afghanistan between the fall of Kabul until the November 1997 visit to Pakistan by Secretary of State Madeliene Albright seemed to by primarily motivated by commercial concerns involving the realization of the UNOCAL pipeline project. Tightening the noose around Iran, could be a political goal, but it was also appeared to be motivated by the economic factor, as Tehran had also concluded a couple of gas supply deals with the Turkmen government involving European oil companies. Albright was the first US diplomat who came out categorically against the “despicable” attitude of Taliban on women rights; otherwise, all top US leaders visiting the region, particularly Kabul, since it came under Taliban’s occupation, had spoken altogether different words about Taliban.

“We have an American company which is interested in building a pipeline from Turkmenistan through to Pakistan. This pipeline project will be very good for Pakistan and Afghanistan as it will not only offer job opportunities but also energy in Afghanistan,” said Robin Raphel in Islamabad on 21 April 1996 soon after visiting Kabul. Later in the year, in October, she was in Kabul once again for a week, and after returning from there, she told presspersons in Islamabad that the international community should “engage the Taliban” instead of “isolating them.”

Inderfurth, who succeeded Raphel in July 1997, was quoted by the Washington Post on 12 January 1998, even after Medeliene’s remarks about Taliban, as saying: “We do believe they (Taliban) can modify their behavour and take into account certain international standards with respect to women’s rights to education and employment.”

Bill Richardson was the highestranking US diplomat to visit Afghanistan since Henry Kissinger. During his visit in April 1998—six months before the US embassies were attacked and two months after Al-Qaeda issued a declaration of jihad to “kill the Americans and their allies—civilian and military’—the US ambassador to the UN was reported to have offered US recognition of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in exchange for the handing over of Osama to the United States. Since then, even after the US embassies bombing in August 1998, Taliban maintained their officials contacts with the State Department through their representatives based in Washington, DC, urging the US administration that it should recognize their government since they were now in control of over 90 percent of Afghanistan—meaning they were in a position to provide and safe and secure environment to the American oil concerns. It was only after the passing of the stringent UN Security Council resolutions in December last year that they were asked to leave the United States, as the sanctions imposed a ban on international travel of Taliban officials.

Copyright Ishtiaq Ahmad, Pakistan Observer, 2002. Reprinted for fair use only

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