In his State of the Union address, President Obama claimed that the U.S. had basically ignored the situation in Afghanistan during the 1990s. But as Michael Rubin shows in a disturbing article in Commentary, Obama’s account, as is so often the case when the president dabbles in history, is not correct. Rather, beginning in 1995, before the Taliban had even taken control of Kabul, the Clinton administration began a policy of engagement, a policy that persisted throughout the remainder of Clinton’s presidency.
The history of that policy provides an object lesson in the folly of that staple of modern left-liberal foreign policy, and especially the foreign policy of President Obama — diplomacy as a substitute for meaningful action against our sworn enemies.
According to Rubin, our government’s courtship of the Taliban began after U.S. diplomats reported that this band of fanatical Islamist radicals liked the U.S. and wanted to improve its image. At around the same time, Osama bin Laden was expelled from Sudan and relocated in eastern Afghanistan, where he was embraced by the Taliban. In response, a U.S. diplomat urged the Taliban to stop sheltering bin Laden.
But rather than backing up this message with any threat of robust action, the administration advised the Taliban that it wished to have frequent meetings in Kabul. This signaled that the Taliban could satisfy the U.S. through talk about expelling bin Laden, as opposed to actual expulsion.
And this is what happened via a bizarre dance that lasted for years. As Rubin reports, the Taliban denied the presence of any terrorists in Afghanistan, while arguing that it could be more helpful in dealing with such terrorists as might find their way into the country if the U.S. would provide it with funding.
Despite the transparent bad faith of this position, the State Department, now headed by Madeleine Albright, continued to negotiate regularly with the Taliban. For its part, the Taliban, in Rubin’s words, continued to “stonewall on terrorism, while dangling just enough hope to keep diplomats calling and forestall punitive strategies.”
In early 1997, the U.S. asked that the Taliban allow a U.S. team to visit the sites of terrorist camps to confirm that activity had ceased. This was a silly request because, as Rubin points out, our satellite monitoring provided more accurate information about the status of terrorist camps than any guided tour could. Nonetheless, arranging for such tours became the focus of our diplomatic efforts.
The Taliban initially agreed to visits, but stalled for months and then rescinded the offer. Meanwhile, bin Laden was plotting his attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
Again, the U.S. ignored the Taliban’s blatant bad faith. After striking out on camp visits, our focus returned to the expulsion of bin Laden. The Taliban’s response was that, though it strongly disapproved of bin Laden, it could not expel him because he had been invited to Afghanistan, albeit by the Taliban’s enemies. Under these circumstances, it would violate Afghan culture to turn him away.
This position, laughable though it is, caused the State Department to back down. As Rubin explains, “when American diplomats face a conflict between national security and cultural relativism, they usually defer to the latter.” Moreover, the State Department was so locked into its policy of engagement that any excuse the Taliban offered for refusing to turn on bin Laden was likely to be accepted.
So the U.S. backed off. Its stated rationale was that “not to engage the Taliban. . .will most likely leave them only more isolated, possibly more dangerous, and certainly more susceptible to those wishing to direct Taliban energies beyond Afghanistan.” This type of logic should sound familiar. It is what passes for deep thinking at Foggy Bottom and other liberal enclaves.
To maintain its charade, the Taliban promised not to permit terrorists to use Afghanistan as a base of operations and claimed that bin Laden had been muzzled. Both assurances were false. Far from muzzling bin Laden, the Taliban permitted ABC News to interview him. And ten weeks later, al Qaeda suicide bombers attacked our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
The U.S. responded by bombing a terrorist camp in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar responded by denying that bin Laden had planned the attacks and stating, albeit petulantly, that he was open to dialogue. Despite the demonstrable futility of engagement, Albright agreed to more talks.
In the ensuing round of diplomacy, the administration supplied the Taliban with evidence of bin Laden’s culpability in the embassy attacks. But a Taliban court proceeded to find bin Laden not guilty of any involvement. Later, when al Qaeda operatives from Pakistan hijacked an Indian Airlines plane and diverted it to Afghanistan, the Taliban re-supplied them with weapons.
None of these developments, or indeed the absence of any gain from more than four years of engagement, caused the Clinton administration to change course. It continued to reject a self-help approach to dealing with bin Laden, nixing a CIA plan to assassinate the terrorist mastermind. On 9/11, several thousand Americans paid with their lives for Clinton’s criminally misguided approach to al Qaeda and the Taliban.
The lessons of this failed history of engaging the Taliban are also lost on President Obama who, as noted above, misrepresents that history. Indeed, Obama’s public statements show him to be a more vociferous advocate of diplomacy for its own sake than Bill Clinton ever was.
Moreover, Obama proclaimed in his State of the Union address that he intends to engage “those Taliban who abandon violence and respect the human rights of their fellow citizens.” Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan, has handpicked a team for that purpose. The team includes the architect of the failed pre-9/11 policy, then Assistant Secretary of State Robin Rafel.
No doubt, she and her fellow diplomats will unerringly identify the members of the peace-loving, human rights respecting wing of the Taliban.
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