US Gave Silent Backing To Taliban Rise To Power
By Phillip Knightley
October 8, 2001
WASHINGTON (AFP) - Afghanistan's Taliban regime, now bracing for punitive US military strikes, was brought to power with Washington's silent blessing as it dallied in an abortive new "Great Game" in central Asia.
Keen to see Afghanistan under strong central rule to allow a US-led group to build a multi-billion-dollar oil and gas pipeline, Washington urged key allies Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to back the militia's bid for power in 1996, analysts said.
But it was soon forced to abandon its brief and shadowy flirtation with the Islamic purists, who US officials now say are unfit to rule, as the militia began imposing its brutal version of Islamic law, sparking a violent outcry from US women's groups.
While the United States has denied supporting the Taliban's rise, experts say that at the time they seized the capital five years ago, Washington saw the militia as a strange but potentially stabilizing force.
"Now, years on, the US has to cope with the damage for which it is partially responsible starting with its role during and after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan," said Radha Kumar of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Ahmed Rashid, a leading author and expert on Afghan affairs, said it was "clear" Washington, which armed and trained the Afghan mujahedin during their battle against Soviet invaders in the 1980s, indirectly supported the Taliban.
"The United States encouraged Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to support the Taliban, certainly right up to their advance on Kabul" on September 26, 1996, he said from his base in Lahore, Pakistan. "That seems very ironic now."
One key reason for US interest in the Taliban was a 4.5-billion-dollar oil and gas pipeline that a US-led oil consortium planned to build across war-ravaged Afghanistan.
The California-based Unocal Corp. in 1996 hatched plans to stretch the pipeline from the central Asian state of Turkmenistan to Pakistan and the United States and the oil consortium wanted most of Afghanistan to be under the stable control of one government to ensure the pipeline's security, the analysts said.
In the months before the Taliban took power, former US assistant secretary of state for South Asia Robin Raphel waged an intense round of shuttle diplomacy between the powers with possible stakes in the project.
"Robin Raphel was the face of the Unocal pipeline," said an official of the former Afghan government who was present at some of the meetings with her.
The Unocal consortium also included Saudi-based Delta Oil, Pakistan's Crescent Group and Gazprom of Russia.
The project was to start with a two-billion-dollar, 890-kilometer (556-mile) gas pipeline that would channel 1.9 billion cubic feet of gas to Pakistan each day.
In addition to tapping new sources of energy, the move also suited a major US strategic aim in the region: isolating its nemesis Iran and stifling a frequently-mooted rival pipeline project backed by Tehran, experts said.
"This was part of what I call a new great game between Russia, the United States, China, Iran and European companies for control of the new oil and gas resources that have been discovered," Rashid said. A dangerous game for influence in Afghanistan was played in the 19th century by Britain and Russia, at a strategic crossroads between South Asia and Czarist Russia.
The Unocal consortium feared there could be no pipeline as long as Afghanistan, battered by war since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, was split among rival warlords. The Taliban, whose rise to power owed much to their bid to stamp out the drugs trade and install law and order, seemed attractive to Washington.
"It thought the Taliban might be a stabilizing factor if they controlled 90 percent of the country," said the CFR's Kumar.
When the Taliban rolled into Kabul, Washington appeared initially enthusiastic amid signs it would consider recognising the new regime.
The top US diplomat in Pakistan planned a visit to Kabul just days after it was captured by the Taliban and a State Department official expressed hope that the Taliban would "move quickly to restore order and security."
But Washington cancelled the diplomat's trip as protests against the Taliban's treatment of women erupted in the United States, news reports said at the time. Unocal withdrew from the pipeline consortium two years later.