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New US envoy to Kabul lobbied for Taliban oil rights

By Kim Sengupta in Kabul and Andrew Gumbel

10 January 2002

The United States' new special envoy to Kabul once lobbied for the Taliban and worked for an American oil company that sought concessions for pipelines in Afghanistan.

Zalmay Khalilzad, who was born in Afghanistan, has arrived in Kabul amid much publicity. As the representative of the country that put the new government in power, he has a highly influential position.

In one of his first press conferences, Mr Khalilzad condemned the Taliban as sponsors of terrorism and vowed the US would continue the military campaign until they and their allies in Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network are eradicated.

But in 1997, as a paid adviser to the oil multinational Unocal, he took part in talks with Taliban officials regarding the possibility of building highly lucrative gas and oil pipelines. He had drawn up a risk analysis report for the project that would have exploited the natural reserves of the region, estimated to be the world's second largest after the Persian Gulf.

At the same time, he urged the Clinton administration to take a softer line on the Taliban. By 1997 some of the regime's worst excesses had become public and Mr bin Laden was ensconced in Afghanistan. That year, the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, described the Taliban's abuses of human rights as "despicable".

But Mr Khalilzad defended them in The Washington Post. "The Taliban do not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practised by Iran," he wrote. "We should ... be willing to offer recognition and humanitarian assistance and to promote international economic reconstruction. It is time for the United States to re-engage."

Without such "re-engagement", it would not have been possible for Unocal to pursue its goal to build a gas pipeline from the landlocked former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan through Afghanistan into Pakistan, with a possible extension to India.

Unocal had been involved in a commercial war for the pipeline concession with the Argentinian company Bridas. As well as Mr Khalilzad – who had been an undersecretary of defence under George Bush Snr and has worked as a defence analyst for the Rand Corporation – Unocal hired a string of high-profile names with connections to the region to fight its cause, including Robert Oakley, the former US ambassador to Pakistan and later the US special envoy to Somalia.

American policy towards Afghanistan was increasingly being criticised because it seemed to be guided by oil and gas interests. That changed in August 1998, when the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed and Washington blamed Mr bin Laden for the attacks. Unocal concluded that its pipeline was no longer tenable as long as the Taliban were in power.

At that point Mr Khalilzad, too, changed his tune. In a highly influential article published in the Winter 2000 edition of The Washington Quarterly, an academic journal, he laid out what were to become the founding principles of the Bush administration's war in Afghanistan.

Engagement with the Taliban was no longer possible, he argued: indeed, the sanctuary given to Mr bin Laden posed a grave threat to US interests at home and abroad. Opposition to the Taliban should be orchestrated through both the Northern Alliance and anti-Taliban Pashtun groups, with talks on a successor regime channelled through the former king, Zahir Shah, in Rome.

Largely thanks to that article and the success of the war based on its premises, Mr Khalilzad has become an influential adviser to President Bush. His credibility relies to a large extent on his birth. He was born 50 years ago in Mazar-i-Sharif and brought up in Kabul as part of Afghanistan's Dari-speaking elite, before travelling to Lebanon and then to the US in the 1970s to complete his education in political science.

His many critics point out that he has been wrong as often as he has been right – going back to the 1980s when, as a state department official in the Reagan administration, he argued vociferously in favour of providing surface-to-air missiles and other sophisticated weaponry to the very mujahedin groups that later gave birth to the Taliban.

"If he was in private business rather than government, he would have been sacked long ago," Anatol Lieven, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said.

Such criticisms, and the possible conflict of interest arising from Mr Khalilzad's former role in Unocal, perhaps explains why he was appointed to the National Security Council, a position that did not require confirmation hearings in the Senate.

Even now, his oil contacts are bound to raise suspicions about both his priorities and those of the Bush administration. At the NSC, Mr Khalilzad worked for the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who had served on the board of the Chevron Corporation as an expert on another central Asian state with major oil reserves, Kazakhstan.

President Bush and Vice-president Dick Cheney have extensive backgrounds in the oil business, too, and it will not be lost on any of them that central Asia has almost 40 per cent of the world's gas reserves and 6 per cent of its oil reserves.

In addition, Mr Khalilzad has links to the most hawkish wing of the administration. In the 1980s, he worked on Afghanistan alongside Paul Wolfowitz, now the Deputy Secretary of Defence and an ardent advocate of military action to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq – a hardline view that has also sometimes been voiced by Mr Khalilzhad.

9 January 2003 10:50

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