New Delhi, Nov. 8: A tip from Indian soil which shed new light on how US diplomat Robin Raphel empowered the Taliban may have hastened her downfall in Washington.
Accounts from Raisina Hill, the seat of government in New Delhi and from Chanakyapuri, the capital’s diplomatic enclave, however, indicated that India’s official apparatus was not involved in the tip. The US embassy was behind relaying the information, albeit in the course of routine transmission of material.
The long-running counter-intelligence probe of Raphel, who began her American civil service career with the CIA, appears to have taken a critical turn when Hamid Mir, executive editor of Pakistan’s Geo TV, made credible revelations about her nearly two-decade-old support for the Taliban to senior editorial staff of The Indian Express in the third week of October.
Mir, along with Shafqat Mahmood, a leader of Imran Khan’s Tehrik-e-Insaf, said in the course of an exchange on India-Pakistan relations with the editors in New Delhi that Raphel had weighed heavily on then Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in 1995 to throw Islamabad’s weight behind the Taliban. At that time, the world viewed the Taliban as a curiosity and it was mistaken by many countries as a nascent student movement for reforming Afghanistan and getting rid of its endemic corruption and war-lordism.
Raphel was then the assistant secretary of state for South Asia, a new entity created with much fanfare in the state department. A middle-ranking diplomat at the US embassy in Chankayapuri, Raphel was catapulted to head the new bureau over several others her senior because she was an “FoB,” Friend of Bill.
Like Strobe Talbott, another FoB who became deputy secretary of state as a political appointee, Bill Clinton brought in a number of his old friends from his Oxford and London years into his administration. Of all of them, Raphel is the one who did maximum damage to America, albeit in retrospect.
She had no excuse for confusing the Taliban for an innocent student movement. She was already an expert on Pakistan and had her resourceful CIA experience behind her. Raphel’s husband (they were divorced by then) gave up his life travelling with General Zia-ul-Haq on their fatal flight in Bahawalpur in 1988.
Here is what Mir said on the record in the third week of October: “The Taliban movement emerged in Afghanistan in 1994. In 1995, I was travelling with then Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto to the US. Bhutto met ambassador Robin Raphel in New York. We came to know that Raphel had asked Bhutto to announce her support to the Taliban. It was very disturbing. I wrote in my column from New York that here is the first elected woman Prime Minister in the whole Muslim world, the Taliban are imposing a ban on girls’ education (in Afghanistan) and she had been asked by Robin Raphel, another woman, to announce her support for the Taliban.”
Benazir did not take kindly to Mir and other journalists getting wind of what had transpired at the meeting with Raphel and she was even less kindly to Mir for writing a column revealing Raphel’s advice.
Here is Mir again in his own words: “When we were coming (back home) from New York, the Prime Minister met me on the plane and said, ‘You are criticising me’. I replied, ‘Yes, this is democracy, I don’t like the Taliban and you are supporting the Taliban at the behest of Raphel’. So she instructed her interior minister to brief me why the Taliban are good for Pakistan.”
A few days passed. “The interior minister organised a briefing for me and Nusrat Javed, a colleague, and explained that we (Pakistan) were using the Taliban as the ‘pipeline police’. We wanted a gas pipeline from Uzbekistan to Pakistan and there was nobody who could protect it because the government in Kabul, the Northern Alliance, was supported by the Indians and the Iranians and they might destroy the gas pipeline.”
Now Mir demanded his price for changing course. “I said OK, I would like to meet Mullah Omar (the Taliban chief). The interior minister said ‘OK’. I met Mullah Omar in Kandahar…. I was astonished he was not aware Raphel was American.”
With Mir’s talk of the pipeline stake, there may be wheels within wheels in the raid on Raphel by the FBI. Not that the investigating agencies did not know. But Mir’s account is confirmation of what the FBI may have long suspected.
Three days after Mir spoke to the editors in New Delhi, Raphel lost her security clearance. This week’s developments, including the sealing of her state department office and a search of her residence, are a follow-up to the revocation of her security clearance.
US embassies across the world routinely send to the state department material such as Mir’s statements that are in the public domain. Sometimes, as in Raphel’s case, they have rare and unexpected consequences.
It was well-known in South Block in the 1990s, the period under review, that the Americans were willing to overlook ideological anathema, including Islamic extremism, for the sake of energy and mineral resources in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Those who approached India as lobbyists on behalf of US oil companies during those years include some big names: Condoleezza Rice, who later became US national security adviser and secretary of state; and Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan American who was later US ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, and whom the US unsuccessfully tried to foist on Kabul as President in succession to Hamid Karzai.
When the Taliban took power in Kabul in December 1996, Raphel was the assistant secretary of state in charge of South Asia. At her persuasion, the US extended recognition to the Taliban, only to withdraw it 10 minutes later.
Even though Raphel left her post a year after the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the US continued her policy of mollycoddling the Taliban, nurturing a monster that would devour the US in association with al Qaida on September 11, 2001.
That policy was abandoned only in August 1998 after two US embassies in east Africa were bombed by terrorists.
During the George W. Bush and Barack Obama years, Raphel held the purse strings to US aid to Pakistan and she shuttled between Islamabad and Washington, residing alternately in both of her favourite cities.
It is not known if the latest FBI probe covers the huge amount of money she disbursed and whether it went into the hands of those who are a threat to America, like the Taliban.