As Michael Rubin has shown, the Clinton administration’s five-year engagement with the Taliban demonstrates the perils of substituting diplomacy for meaningful action against our sworn enemies. The U.S. got nothing from the Taliban, which refused to isolate, much less expel, Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, the Taliban bought time for itself and for its partner al Qaeda, which used that time to attack American interests and, ultimately, to attack our homeland.
Rubin calls this experience a classic case of “clientitis,” which he defines as the “condition that befalls diplomats who confuse their own attempts to achieve a smooth relationship with their host governments for their actual purpose, which is to secure and advance the interests of the United States.” My sense is that more than clientitis was at work. The officials and diplomats responsible for the catastrophic failure to deal with al Qaeda and its host the Taliban stemmed in large part from a criminally naive view of how the world works.
Who were these diplomats? Here, based on Rubin’s reporting, is a partial list:
Thomas Simons — Then the ambassador to Pakistan, it was Simons who got the engagement ball rolling. He claimed that the Taliban, having committed so many atrocities, wished to improve its image in the West and that this alleged desire “demonstrated a growing awareness of [its] own limitations — which may be the modality thorugh which they can be coaxed, over time, to the negotiating table.”
Robin Rafel — Then an Assistant Secretary of State, Rafel was (according to Rubin) the architect of the engagement policy. She traveled frequently to South Asia to meet with Taliban representatives, never sensing (from all that appears) that she and her country were being had. Currently, the gullible Rafel is part of a team established by the Obama administration to open the door to “moderate” elements of the Taliban.
Donald Camp — He was the deputy director of the State Department’s South Asia/ Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh unit. Camp remained determined to engage the Taliban even after it claimed it could not expel bin Laden from Afghanistan, as much as it would have liked to, because expulsion would have violated Afghan cultural norms.
John Holtzman — He was Simons’ assistant. Holtzman supported Camp’s view that the U.S. should continue with engagement, notwithstanding the Taliban’s failure to budge, because not to engage would leave the Taliban feeling isolated. Holtzman also proposed that the U.S. test the Taliban’s intentions by offering to fund certain programs in Afghanistan.
Bill Richardson — Then the ambassador the United Nations, this shameless self-promoter claimed, after visiting Afghanistan (the highest-ranking American official to do so in 20 years), that he had achieved a cease fire in the civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. According to Rubin, some of the most intense fighting of the civil war quickly followed.
Alan Eastham — A senior diplomat in Pakistan, Eastham claimed that 80 percent of the Taliban’s leaders opposed bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan. Even after a Taliban court found bin Laden not guilty of involvement in the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, Eastham remained sold on the prospect that the Taliban might expel the terrorist mastermind. He wrote: “While it is possible that the Taliban are simply playing for time in seeking to reinvigorate the diplomatic track, it is at least possible that they –some of them — are serious about finding a peaceful way out.
William Milam — Our ambassador to Pakistan in 1998, Milam seized on the fact that the Taliban’s “good cop” described bin Laden as “a serious problem” to call for a “notching up of diplomatic efforts.”
Milt Bearden — Bearden had been the CIA station chief in Pakistan. Though out of government during the relevant period, he deserves mention because of an op-ed he wrote for the New York Times in August 1999. Bearden made the ludicrous claim that the Taliban were “as eager to rid themselves of their bin Laden problem as we are to bring him to justice.”
These are the kinds of minds that populate the State Department. And this is the kind of thinking that is ascendant in the Obama administration which, after all, is headed by as vigorous a public advocate of engagement without conditions as our political class has ever produced.