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New US envoy to Kabul lobbied
for Taliban oil rights
By Kim Sengupta in Kabul and
10 January 2002
The United States' new special envoy to Kabul once lobbied for the
Taliban and worked for an American oil company that sought concessions for
pipelines in Afghanistan.
Zalmay Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, has arrived in Kabul amid
much publicity. As the representative of the country that put the new
government in power, he has a highly influential position.
In one of his first press conferences, Mr Khalilzad condemned the
Taliban as sponsors of terrorism and vowed the US would continue the
military campaign until they and their allies in Osama bin Laden's
al-Qa'ida network are eradicated.
But in 1997, as a paid adviser to the oil multinational Unocal, he took
part in talks with Taliban officials regarding the possibility of building
highly lucrative gas and oil pipelines. He had drawn up a risk analysis
report for the project that would have exploited the natural reserves of
the region, estimated to be the world's second largest after the Persian Gulf.
At the same time, he urged the Clinton administration to take a softer
line on the Taliban. By 1997 some of the regime's worst excesses had become
public and Mr bin Laden was ensconced in Afghanistan. That year, the
Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, described the Taliban's abuses of
human rights as "despicable".
But Mr Khalilzad defended them in The Washington Post. "The Taliban
do not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practised by
Iran," he wrote. "We should ... be willing to offer recognition
and humanitarian assistance and to promote international economic
reconstruction. It is time for the United States to re-engage."
Without such "re-engagement", it would not have been possible
for Unocal to pursue its goal to build a gas pipeline from the landlocked
former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan,
with a possible extension to India.
Unocal had been involved in a commercial war for the pipeline concession
with the Argentinian company Bridas. As well as Mr Khalilzad – who had been
an undersecretary of defence under George Bush Snr and has worked as a
defence analyst for the Rand Corporation – Unocal hired a string of
high-profile names with connections to the region to fight its cause,
including Robert Oakley, the former US ambassador to Pakistan and later the
US special envoy to Somalia.
American policy towards Afghanistan was increasingly being criticised
because it seemed to be guided by oil and gas interests. That changed in
August 1998, when the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed and
Washington blamed Mr bin Laden for the attacks. Unocal concluded that its
pipeline was no longer tenable as long as the Taliban were in power.
At that point Mr Khalilzad, too, changed his tune. In a highly
influential article published in the Winter 2000 edition of The Washington
Quarterly, an academic journal, he laid out what were to become the
founding principles of the Bush administration's war in Afghanistan.
Engagement with the Taliban was no longer possible, he argued: indeed,
the sanctuary given to Mr bin Laden posed a grave threat to US interests at
home and abroad. Opposition to the Taliban should be orchestrated through
both the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban Pashtun groups, with talks on a
successor regime channelled through the former king, Zahir Shah, in Rome.
Largely thanks to that article and the success of the war based on its
premises, Mr Khalilzad has become an influential adviser to President Bush.
His credibility relies to a large extent on his birth. He was born 50 years
ago in Mazar-i-Sharif and brought up in Kabul as part of Afghanistan's
Dari-speaking elite, before travelling to Lebanon and then to the US in the
1970s to complete his education in political science.
His many critics point out that he has been wrong as often as he has
been right – going back to the 1980s when, as a state department official
in the Reagan administration, he argued vociferously in favour of providing
surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weaponry to the very
mujahedin groups that later gave birth to the Taliban.
"If he was in private business rather than government, he would
have been sacked long ago," Anatol Lieven, an analyst with the
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said.
Such criticisms, and the possible conflict of interest arising from Mr
Khalilzad's former role in Unocal, perhaps explains why he was appointed to
the National Security Council, a position that did not require confirmation
hearings in the Senate.
Even now, his oil contacts are bound to raise suspicions about both his
priorities and those of the Bush administration. At the NSC, Mr Khalilzad
worked for the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who had served
on the board of the Chevron Corporation as an expert on another central
Asian state with major oil reserves, Kazakhstan.
President Bush and Vice-president Dick Cheney have extensive backgrounds
in the oil business, too, and it will not be lost on any of them that
central Asia has almost 40 per cent of the world's gas reserves and 6 per
cent of its oil reserves.
In addition, Mr Khalilzad has links to the most hawkish wing of the
administration. In the 1980s, he worked on Afghanistan alongside Paul
Wolfowitz, now the Deputy Secretary of Defence and an ardent advocate of
military action to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq – a hardline view that has
also sometimes been voiced by Mr Khalilzhad.
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