Wednesday 5 January 2011

State's low priority for Afghanistan prior to 9/11

Dr Marvin Weinbaum served from 1999-2003 as a State Department analyst for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. In August 2003 he gave an interview in the form of a memorandum for the record to members of the State Department Counterterrorism team, presumably at the point when he left State to take up a new job at the Middle East Institute.
The now declassified memo has been published on the Cryptome website and should be read by anyone interested in US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The four-page redacted memo succinctly spells out the major errors made by US policy makers as the Taliban took power in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda cemented its relations with Mullah Omar.
Weinbaum says Pakistan was willing to back whoever would bring order to Afghanistan and at various times gave money to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and to the notorious General Dostum. He argues that the Taliban was not created by Pakistan, rather that it caught the eye of policy makers after a number of victories in Kandahar and elsewhere.
He notes that Osama bin Laden (UBL) and the Arabs had a strong connection with the Afghans, but that they were not very popular with the average Afghan: "When UBL returned in 1996, he is not viewed as a hero; rather he is viewed as a source of cash," explains the memo, adding that eventually the Taliban under Mullah Omar became financially dependent on bin Laden and the relationship was later cemented by marriages between the families of the two leaders. The money came from wealthy Arabs who donated to Arab charities based in Peshawar and Kandahar.
Meanwhile, from 1989 to 1998 Afghanistan remained a low priority for the State Department. The threat from the Taliban was not appreciated, with some officials arguing that they should be "given a chance". At that time oil company Unocal was discussing its proposed pipeline from Central Asia to the Indian Ocean with State: "Weinbaum opines that while Unocal was not a driving force in setting policy, the Department definitely heard them out."
With the arrival of new officials in 1998, policy began to change, particularly after the attacks on US embassies in East Africa and after Pakistan's nuclear tests. The main US policy for Afghanistan now became the expulsion of bin Laden. While Counterterrorism Coordinator Michael Sheehan argued for sanctions, Weinbaum believed this policy would push the Taliban closer to bin Laden.Instead he supported the idea of financing development in the north as a way of discrediting the Taliban and their claims of progress. However, this policy was not followed because the Northern Alliance at that time was perceived as being pro-Iranian.
Weinbaum says that engaging with the Taliban was not easy and that the more moderate wing around Mullah Rabbani could never hope to deliver bin Laden to the Americans: "Weinbaum doesn't even think Omar would have traded UBL to the US in return for American recognition. We had very little leverage here."
Nor did pressure on Pakistan work, not least because the US had distanced itself from Islamabad after the nuclear tests.
Weinbaum ends by saying that as al-Qaeda mounted its momentous attacks on America there was very little expertise on Afghanistan within the State Department: "Weinbaum says that on 9/11, he was the only person in State who had lived in Afghanistan."

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