building in Jabul Siraj, a village at the foot of the Hindu Kush mountain range north of Kabul. A fierce wind blew across the Shomali plains, bending trees in its path, whipping up dust devils, and rattling windows--and adding an appropriate touch of drama to his warning: "We don't need armed Arabs wandering around our country," Massoud said. "They have no place here; they should leave." Massoud was speaking about a small army of Arab fighting men who had ventured into Afghanistan to witness the jihad against the Soviets, and who had since become embroiled in Afghanistan's ongoing and torturous civil war. It was the late summer of 1993--still five years before the Arabs' leader, Osama Bin Ladin, would become an international household name as a terrorist. Massoud, the strongman behind the Afghan government of the day, was then holding 30 Arabs whom his forces had captured in attacks on his capital--prisoners whom he described as terrorists. 

I was there because Massoud was convinced that such terrorism was bad news not only for Afghanistan, but for the United States, as well. I was working on a documentary for CNN called "Terror Nation: U.S. Creation?" and Massoud was hoping to send a message through the broadcast. Yet, though Massoud and his allies would spend months trying to get the attention of American officials--and warn them about the terrorist headquarters being established in Afghanistan--the United States would never show interest. Indeed, the thesis of that CNN special, which aired in 1994, was that the bombing of the World Trade Center was an unintended consequence--what intelligence types call "blowback"--of the CIA's involvement in the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. Among its other revelations were stories of camps in Afghanistan, where new armies of international terrorists were training. But, when it aired, U.S. officials would not even entertain the notion that such camps existed, let alone that they were another form of blowback. 

Now, of course, we know that the camps do exist. We also know that the extremist movement known as the Taliban, which eventually drove Massoud out of Kabul to take power, is inexorably linked to Bin Ladin. And we know that U.S. policy blunders played no small part in creating this problem. 

In December 1979, American officials responded to the surprise Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by pouring money into the Afghan resistance. Over the next eleven years, the United States would subsidize Afghan rebels to the tune of $3 billion. But, because the United States had been caught off guard, it quickly delegated important decision-making to Pakistan, despite the fact that it was not at all clear Pakistan's interests truly coincided with those of either Washington or the Afghan people. 

And that would prove to be a key error. Although the natural leaders in Afghanistan were tribal heads and men like Massoud--who had developed a broad, grassroots infrastructure--Pakistan ignored or abandoned them. Chronically nervous about its front with India to the east, Pakistan has long been determined to keep a weak, nonthreatening regime in Kabul as a counterbalance to the West--and that was the criterion Pakistan used in choosing which rebels to back. In the end, the Pakistanis embraced Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an anti-Western firebrand, who gained notoriety in Afghanistan for killing more fellow mujahideen than Communists. Human rights groups and Western journalists tried to spread word of his atrocities. But he was obedient to Pakistan, and that was good enough to win him the lion's share of CIA supplies--as well as the endorsement of the United States, which adopted the Pakistani line that he was the most effective and representative mujahideen leader. "You don't understand," a senior U.S. official in Pakistan said at the time. "These Afghans are always killing each other. Hekmatyar gets the most weapons because he deserves it." 

By 1992, with the Soviet Union no longer a threat, the United States had ceased supplying the Afghan rebels--and many American officials had simply ceased to be interested in Afghanistan altogether. But Afghanistan was hardly on its way to peace. The puppet regime the Soviets had left behind had withdrawn from its distant outposts and had pulled most of its forces back into larger cities. In April, the mujahideen entered Kabul--this was the time, say Afghans and observers, that Afghanistan needed a new kind of aid from Washington. "After pouring in three billion dollars' worth of weapons, America could have helped us find our way back to civilization and rebuild our nation," says a prominent Afghan leader who, in light of recent anti-Americanism in the area, asked not to be named. "For more than a decade, we knew only one thing, to settle arguments through the barrels of our guns." 

But no aid from the United States came. And international groups could only watch in horror as Hekmatyar began blitzkrieg assaults on Kabul to try to drive out the forces of Massoud. From positions in the mountains surrounding Kabul, Hekmatyar rained daily barrages of rockets into the capital, striking indiscriminately at civilian areas where hundreds of rockets often hit before breakfast, leaving the mangled and the survivors to await the next onslaught. "We are witnessing one of the world's worst humanitarian disasters," a Red Cross official in Kabul said at the time. Again, representatives of Massoud and his party leader, President Burhanuddin Rabbani, made entreaties to Washington--and, again, there was no response. During the first few months of the mujahideen victory in 1992, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for Afghanistan, Peter Tomsen, and his deputy, Richard Hoagland, visited Kabul--but that would be the last of such visits for a half-decade. The two men, both well-attuned to the nation's problems, were promoted and transferred. 

As Hekmatyar continued his assault on Kabul, Massoud's forces began to capture increasing numbers of Arabs who said they had come to Afghanistan for training and battlefield experience. Many of them turned out to be followers of Bin Ladin, the wealthy son of a Saudi industrialist who--at the time--was living in Sudan. Bin Ladin had cultivated a reputation as a courageous warrior, although his real contribution may have been simply to bankroll Afghan rebels and their families. He came with a checkbook--and a $300 million balance--thus allowing him to buy his way into the Afghans' favor. "We knew him as one of the Saudi benefactors who took care of widows and orphans," a retired U.S. official who helped fight the anti-Soviet jihad told The New York Times. 

As Kabul remained mired in civil war in 1994, a new movement appeared on the scene: the Taliban, a motley group of former Islamic theological students. Initially, U.S. officials welcomed their arrival. After all, the Taliban had restored order in Kandahar and other corners of the South--perhaps, it was thought, they could do the same for the rest of the nation. In addition, U.S. officials reasoned, the Taliban could serve as a bulwark against Russian and Iranian interests, while providing Pakistan with an overland link to the lucrative flow of trade through Central Asia. U.S. narcotics officials had their own ideas: they believed, or at least hoped, that the Taliban might succeed in shutting down Afghanistan's blossoming opium trade. 

What probably made the most difference to U.S. policymakers, though, was the Taliban's commitment to a particular commercial enterprise. The Taliban had promised to permit construction of giant gas and oil pipelines from Central Asia, down through Afghanistan, to Pakistan. The main contender for that work was an American-Saudi coalition of Unocal and Delta oil companies. The Taliban's "most important function ... was to provide security for roads and, potentially, oil and gas pipelines that would link the states of Central Asia to the international market through Pakistan rather than Iran," says Barnett Rubin, an analyst of Afghan affairs. Indeed, in the summer of 1996, when U.S. Senator Hank Brown of Colorado held meetings on Afghanistan, the most memorable testimony came not from an Afghan but from Martin Miller, the Unocal vice president in charge of the proposed Afghan pipeline project. From day one, Unocal said, the oil route through Afghanistan could pump a million barrels of oil per day. And, within a few years, once the pipeline reached other oil fields in Central Asia, it could pump five million barrels a day, the company vowed. (Many analysts believe that Central Asia is the next Middle East; one country alone, Turkmenistan, has 21,000 billion cubic meters of natural gas, the third-largest reserve in the world.) 

It took a while for many in the West to catch on, but inside Afghanistan the key players were already well-aware of the pipeline's importance--and its potential effect on policy. In 1996, during a conversation in Kabul not long before the Taliban reached the capital, Ahmed Shah Massoud asked me about Unocal, its motives, its methods, and its ties to the U.S. government. When the Taliban finally reached the gates of Kabul, it was well-financed and well-equipped--and it could count upon the acquiescence of the United States. 

Kabul fell to the Taliban quickly, and the new rulers brought with them mind-numbing rules for society: women could not venture outside their homes without a male relative--and, even then, not without tentlike clothing called burkas that covered them from head to foot. The Taliban also prohibited women from working, attending school, or being examined by male doctors. Religious police squads roamed the streets, beating offenders--such as errant women or men who trimmed their beards or did not pray at mosques when the Taliban said they should. Virtually every form of entertainment was banned, from television to kite-flying; glass windows on private homes were painted black. 

But none of this raised the Clinton administration's ire, at least not initially. Hours after the Taliban took Kabul in September 1996, State Department spokesman Glyn Davies said the United States could see "nothing objectionable" about the version of Islamic law the Taliban had imposed in the areas it then controlled. In an address to the United Nations two months later, then-Assistant Secretary of State for South Asian Affairs Robin Raphel conceded international "misgivings" about the Taliban but insisted the Taliban had to be "acknowledged" as an "indigenous" movement that had "demonstrated staying power." U.S. officials spoke of seeking early talks with the Taliban's leaders and discussed reopening the U.S. Embassy in Kabul once the dust had settled. This was entirely in character: in one encounter a few months before the Taliban entered Kabul, a mid-level bureaucrat at the State Department perched on his couch and tried to convince me that the Taliban was really not such a bad bunch. "You get to know them and you find they really have a great sense of humor," he said. 

If the administration seemed nonchalant about the Taliban, Unocal was downright gleeful. In a statement to Reuters that the company has worked ever since to retract, a Unocal official applauded the Taliban's arrival and spoke glowingly about the immediate prospects for doing business with the group. Of course, this was hardly surprising, given Unocal's courtship of the Taliban. The company had played host to Taliban clerics on a trip to the United States. Unocal had also hired as "consultants" key Americans involved in Afghan operations during the jihad years. The former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, Robert Oakley, went on the Unocal payroll. A former official of the U.N. secretary-general's mission to Afghanistan, Charles Santos, was given a far more obscure position--he went to work for Unocal's Saudi partner, the firm Delta. 

Eventually, both the United States and Unocal would come to regret their decisions. When Sudan expelled Bin Ladin in 1996 at the behest of Washington, he returned to Pakistan and then ventured into Afghanistan, where he settled in a no-man's-land outside Jalalabad, a city across the Khyber Pass from Peshawar. Upon his return, The New York Times recently reported, Bin Ladin personally gave the Taliban $3 million--a vast sum in such an impoverished nation--that helped cement a relationship. Bin Ladin saw he had a common cause with the emerging Taliban; Pakistani military intelligence officers who were helping to create the Taliban saw the wisdom of fostering relations between Bin Ladin and the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar. The two were introduced, and, after the Taliban took Kabul, Bin Ladin moved to Kandahar--the city the Taliban now calls its headquarters. 

The United States knew Bin Ladin had come to Afghanistan, and, when Bill Richardson, then the Clinton administration's U.N. ambassador, visited the Taliban leadership earlier this year, he asked them to expel Bin Ladin. The Taliban refused. (This, at least, is one official version. Other State Department officials have said that Richardson merely asked the Taliban to keep Bin Ladin "under control.") Finally--and quite belatedly--the administration turned. On a visit to a girls' school at an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan this year, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright angrily denounced the Taliban: "I think it is very clear why we are opposed to the Taliban. Because of their approach to human rights, their despicable treatment of women and children, and their general lack of respect for human dignity ... [that is] more reminiscent of the past than of the future." Other U.S. hopes had gone unfulfilled, too: rather than destroy the opium trade, as U.S. officials had hoped, the Taliban taxed it, earning millions of dollars in the process. 

Unocal, meanwhile, met with similar disappointment. Just this week, it announced that the pipeline project it had worked so hard to promote--the project on which so much U.S. policy had been premised--had become unfeasible. It was, for now, pulling the plug. Much had been sacrificed for that endeavor--money being the least of it. 

Richard Mackenzie is an award-winning independent television producer and writer. He has recently reported on Afghanistan and international terrorism for CNN, the Discovery Channel, The Asian Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic. 

(Copyright 1998, The New Republic) 

Sept 14, 1998: After the Soviets were ousted, the United States practiced benign neglect toward Afghanistan. Today, the country is the domain of Taliban Islamist ultras--and a playground for anti-American terrorists.

The succession:

The price of neglecting Afghanistan

By Richard Mackenzie 

Ahmed Shah Massoud, the charismatic resistance fighter whom The Wall Street Journal once called "the Afghan who won the cold war," sat cross-legged on the floor of a rambling

The New Republic: Warnings Ignored

Ahmed Shah Massoud

Jabul-Saraj, 2003

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