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Afghanistan '96: The Legacy of Information Failures

It is September 1996. The Taliban have taken Kabul. Hours later the US State Department Acting Spokesman Glyn Davies states that the United States could see "nothing objectionable" about the Taliban's Islamist rule, a statement that journalist Tim McGirk (now known for his role in breaking the Haditha story) charitably noted was issued with "unseemly haste." But even after two months during which to reflect on the issue, gather information and form a message, the State Department still managed another blunder, this time at the UN. It was here in November 1996 that Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Robin Raphel brushed aside international "misgivings" about the Taliban and insisted that the Taliban must be acknowledged as an "indigenous" movement with "demonstrated staying power."

At this point the damage was now irreparable. Besides adding fuel to Western conspiracy theorists' fire, America was now seen by many in Afghanistan (and firmly alongside the Pakistani ISI in this respect) as being behind the rise of the Taliban.


Photo: Kabul 1996, the Taliban invade the UN compound and capture former President Najibullah and his brother. He is tortured, possibly castrated and then hanged in public. Obviously this photo, even isolated as a single event, does not compliment the State Department's public message [Wikimedia].

Two years later the French political philosopher/journalist Bernard-Henri Lévy interviewed Shura-yi Nazar leader Ahmad Shah Massoud in the Panjshir Valley, the strongest hold-out against Taliban rule. Massoud complained bitterly about American support for the Taliban, with a particular focus on UNOCAL's fantasy pipeline. Lévy disagreed with the notion that the US was materially supporting the Taliban, but Massoud brushed aside his counterpoints. Perhaps Massoud, with a (relatively) excellent intelligence gathering unit, knew there was no US support for the Taliban and was instead just expressing his frustration at the US not supporting him. This viewpoint certainly filtered down from those anti-Taliban elites to the masses.    

While I'm no expert on the State Department's public diplomacy skills (that would be Matt Armstrong's department), my opinion is that their blundering had much to do with gross ignorance and blind optimism. Longtime Afghanistan expert William Maley best sums up this era:

And although the US State Department had responded to the Taliban takeover of Kabul in a way which was frightening in its sheer naivete, the passage of time had punctured most of the illusions on which American policy towards the Taliban was based. But it still took the horror of a bright and sunny September morning in Washington and New York to turn the last of these illusions into dust.

In an interview with Richard Mackenzie in 1996 an unnamed CIA source pointed to a pro-Taliban "cabal" in the State Department. Mackenzie, for his part, noted that "Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel and two of her staff gave good impressions of being at least occasional cheer leaders for the Taliban." Steve LeVine of Newsweek wrote that, pre-fall of Kabul, "some midlevel State Department officials applauded the movement's campaign for law and order." One State Department employee remarked about the Taliban to Mackenzie:

You get to know them and you find they really have a great sense of humour.

Finally, in 1997, the newly appointed Madeleine Albright purged the entire chain of command on Afghanistan from Raphel down to the Afghan desk officer, ending the era of State Department bungling regarding Afghanistan. Well informed Afghanistan experts such as the former Consul in Peshawar, Michael Malinowski, were brought in and began shaping a steady message of condemnation of the Taliban.

After 9/11 the main conspiracy offered in the West was that US motives in Afghanistan were all about access to energy resources, a view that has mostly disappeared now that it is obvious the United States now has almost zero interest in Afghanistan as a source of, or transit route for, energy supplies. But the fact that a UNOCAL representative had applauded the Taliban takeover of Kabul and lobbied ferociously in Congress surely helped shape the conspiracy theories.

But inside Afghanistan rumors are alive and well. The main one being that the United States is supporting the Taliban. There are people who insist the US is directly delivering weapons and supplies to the Taliban (an idea that was reinforced when a contractor helicopter dropped military supplies in the wrong location and into Taliban hands). Of course, it is hard to argue with people who argue that the US supports Pakistan, and Pakistan supports the Taliban, therefore the US supports the Taliban.

The United States government has never, aside from an offer of $40 million in drug eradication funds, directly supported the Taliban. But the poor performance of the State Department, alongside UNOCAL lobbying efforts, undermined the view of facts on the ground and embedded in the minds of some Afghans the belief that America supports the Taliban. In an environment with so little information, Afghans did look to American rhetoric to form their assumptions about American policies regarding the Taliban. 

It is 1993. Peter Arnett of CNN is interviewing Robert Gates. Arnett makes a connection between Afghanistan and the first World Trade Center attack. Gates spoke of the veterans of the anti-Soviet Jihad:

A lot of them weren't people you'd invite home to dinner. The reality is you had to make do with the strategic situation you found in Afghanistan.

Gates really needs to substitute "Pakistan" for "Afghanistan" in that sentence. This, however, is a totally different type of failure so familiar as to be worth little further exploration.

Main Sources:

Mackenzie, Richard (1998/2001). 'The United States and the Taliban', in Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban. William Maley (ed.). NY: NYU Press.

Lévy, Bernard-Henri (2005) War, Evil and the End of History. (British edition) Duckworth and Co.       

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