Bush's Favorite Afghan

Bush's Favorite Afghan

Bush's Favorite Afghan

Politics and policy.
Oct. 5 2001 2:49 PM

Bush's Favorite Afghan

A recent article in the New York Times about how college campuses are reacting to the World Trade Center attack cited a characteristic anti-war comment from the Vietnam era. Daniel Ellsberg, the Rand Corp. official who leaked the Pentagon Papers, once said that he doubted that anyone in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration could pass a freshman course in Vietnamese culture and politics.

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One might have the same kind of worry this time. Afghanistan, after all, is a nation as exotic and remote from the experience of most Americans as Vietnam was in the 1960s. Happily, though, it turns out that there is someone in the George W. Bush administration who could not only pass a freshman course in Afghan culture and politics, but could also easily teach one--and probably has. As it happens, the lead National Security Council official dealing with the region is one Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-born scholar of both the Middle East and military affairs. Judging from things he has written in the past, this little-known defense intellectual is playing a central role in the administration's emerging strategy for combating Islamic terrorism.

I was unable to speak to Khalilzad for this article, so my information about his precise background remains a bit sketchy. According to friends and colleagues, he is a native Dari speaker who grew up in Kabul, where he attended an English-language school. Tom Gouttierre, who directs the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska and who has known Khalilzad since he was in high school, says that "Zal," as his friends call him, originally visited America as an AFS student. Khalilzad left Afghanistan for good when he won a scholarship to attend the American University of Beirut in the 1970s. He subsequently did graduate work at the University of Chicago, where he received his Ph.D. in 1979. There he met his wife, an Austrian woman named Cheryl Benard, with whom he co-wrote a book about revolutionary Iran. (Benard has since become a writer of feminist-themed novels, including Moghul Buffet, set on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.)

According to academic colleagues, Khalilzad held pro-Palestinian views in his student days. By the end of the 1970s, however, his foreign policy views had taken on a clear hawkish cast, distinguishing him as perhaps the first and only Afghan-American neoconservative. In the early 1980s, he taught political science at Columbia, where he worked with Zbigniew Brzezinski. In 1984, Khalilzad, who had by then become an American citizen, joined the State Department on a one-year fellowship. In the midst of the mujahideen's war against Soviet occupation, his background and language skills were valuable enough to win him a permanent position on the State Department's Policy Planning Council. There he worked under Paul Wolfowitz, who served as director of policy planning in the Reagan administration. The two have been allies ever since.

During the later Regan years, Khalilzad worked primarily on issues related to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq war. On both topics, his contemporaneous views now look perspicacious. When the United States began aiding the mujahideen in the 1980s, he recalled in a recent speech, he and others hoped to increase the costs of the Soviet occupation. They never anticipated that the rebel forces they backed, which included radical Islamic fundamentalists, would win the war. When the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, Khalilzad warned against the United States declaring victory and going home; the potential for civil war could sour our victory. This has proved all too accurate.

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Khalilzad was also an early worrier about Saddam Hussein. As the Iran-Iraq war drew to a close in 1988, Khalilzad wrote a memo to Secretary of State George Schultz arguing for an American policy tilt away from Iraq and toward Iran. According to Elaine Sciolino of the New York Times, Schultz angrily vetoed the proposal. Khalilzad has hewed to his anti-Iraq position consistently in the intervening years, warning about the continuing threat from Saddam and arguing for military aid to Iraqi rebels. In 1998, he joined Wolfowitz and others in signing an open letter to the Clinton administration arguing for a policy of overthrowing Saddam.

Following a stint teaching in California and working at the Rand Corp. on defense issues, Khalilzad returned to Washington as assistant deputy under-secretary of defense for policy planning in the Bush (41) administration. Once again, he worked closely with Wolfowitz, then the Pentagon's No. 3 official. At the Defense Department during the Gulf War, he also got to know Dick Cheney. At the end of the Bush administration, Khalilzad moved back to Rand, where he waited out the Clinton years writing books and articles. After the 2000 election, Cheney selected him to head Bush's transition team for defense issues. In May of this year, Bush (43) appointed him the chief NSC official dealing with the Persian Gulf and Central Asia. In that capacity, he works directly under National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.  

It is Khalilzad's voluminous writings from the eight years the Democrats were in power that provide the best clue as to his views of the current situation. From the end of the Soviet occupation in 1989, Khalilzad consistently argued that America ignored Afghanistan at its peril. After the Taliban seized power in 1996, his warnings became increasingly strenuous. Afghans, who had seen their country destroyed in an endless civil war, were now suffering under the grip of one of the most repressive governments on the face of the earth. But the problem was ours as well as theirs. The Taliban movement posed a direct threat to Pakistan and other nations in Central Asia. By sheltering Osama Bin Laden and encouraging the heroin trade, the radical clerics in Afghanistan threatened the United States as well.

The most complete explication of Khalilzad's pre-war views on the subject came in an article titled "Afghanistan: Consolidation of a Rogue State," which he wrote with his Rand colleague Daniel Byman in the winter 2000 issue of the Washington Quarterly. In a section titled "Why Should We Care?" the authors note that "Afghanistan is a haven for some of the world's most lethal anti-U.S. terrorists and their supporters. Bin Laden is only the most famous of a large and skilled network of radicals. ... Owing to Taliban tolerance, the network Bin Laden helped created flourishes in Afghanistan, where terrorists have a place to train, forge connections, and indoctrinate others. ... They pose a threat to U.S. soldiers and civilians at home and abroad, to the Middle East peace process, and to the stability of our allies in the region." In the programmatic section of their article, Khalilzad and Byman propose six steps to weaken the Taliban. They're worth reviewing in full.

  1. Change the balance of power. Khalilzad and Byman argue that we can weaken the Taliban both by supporting the Northern Alliance and by cultivating members of the dominant Pashtun tribal group chafing under Taliban rule. The authors also contend that the United States should coordinate its anti-Taliban efforts with Russia, China, and Iran, non-allies that share an interest in halting the spread of Talibanism.
  2. Oppose the Taliban's ideology. Khalilzad and Byman recommend expanding Voice of America broadcasts to Afghanistan, providing airtime to "moderate Islamic scholars" and other Taliban opponents.
  3. Press Pakistan to withdraw its support. "As the Taliban's most important sponsor," the authors note, "Pakistan bears a responsibility for its misdeeds and can play an important role in transforming the movement." As leverage on Pakistan, they recommend using the threat of a stronger policy tilt toward India.
  4. Aid the victims of the Taliban. Khalilzad and Byman argue that humanitarian aid can be used to weaken the Taliban's position.
  5. Support moderate Afghans. As part of this effort, the authors recommend convening a so-called Loya Jirgha, a grand tribal council, under the aegis of the exiled former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah.
  6. Elevate the importance of Afghanistan at home. "Continued neglect," they write, "will only lead to further chaos and violence and pose a growing threat to U.S. interests."

What's remarkable about Khalilzad's recommendations--some of which he also makes in this somewhat milder article in an English-language journal published by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs--isn't just how tragically prophetic they look in the light of Sept. 11. It's how closely they track the Bush administration's emerging Afghan policy. We are now supporting the anti-Taliban resistance militarily, drawing further assistance from Russia and China (if not from Iran), preparing an anti-Taliban propaganda war in the region, leaning on Pakistan to switch sides, providing humanitarian and refugee assistance, and pursuing the possibility of a Loya Jirgha under Zahir Shah.

In the present environment, there is no way to say with certainty to what degree Khalilzad has been driving the substance of the Bush administration's policy response to the World Trade Center attacks. But what we've seen so far indicates at the very least an impressive degree of overlap with the previously stated views of Bush's Afghan buddy.