As a Middle Eastern nation stood on the brink of installing a new government, the U.S. diplomat greeted the incoming leaders warmly. Although there were many stories published by major media outlets saying horrific things about the emerging rulers, the high-ranking State Department official chose to ignore the critics. She was upbeat about what the future might hold under their guidance, even remarking to her colleagues how friendly they were.
The country was Afghanistan in summer 1996, and the new leaders were the Taliban. The U.S. official was Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Rafael, whose current job includes choosing new leaders in post-Saddam Iraq. Her early record there suggests that her judgment hasn’t improved much.
As the head of State’s South Asia bureau, Rafael was in large part responsible for direction of the U.S. relationship with the Taliban. Initially fond of the fundamentalist mullahs, Rafael was one of the primary backers of U.S. acceptance of the Taliban after the fall of Kabul in September 1996. She was so fond of the group, in fact, that she visited with members of the sitting government of Burhanuddin Rabbani (who had been in power since 1992) that summer, telling them that they should find a way to “work together” with the Taliban—while the group was shelling Kabul. Since the Taliban was clearly not intent on “working together” with anyone, Rafael’s choice of words was curious indeed.
Rafael obviously had no idea at the time the true nature of the threat posed by the Taliban, but there were plenty of indications that she—and the rest of State—willingly ignored. In an Economist article in October 1996 that quoted Rafael saying that the Taliban did not wish to “export Islam,” an unnamed journalist who had extensively traveled Afghanistan said of the new rulers, “They’re expansionist. They often talk of their desire to spread their beliefs to Pakistan, Central Asia, the Middle East.” Various press accounts also noted the Taliban’s penchant for summary executions with no due process, people having their hands and feet cut off for relatively minor crimes, and of course, the complete subjugation of women and girls.
When State was pressed for comment, the official response—which Rafael had a hand in crafting—was that there was “nothing objectionable” about the Taliban. In fairness to Rafael, she eventually came to find the Taliban entirely “objectionable”—but why did she not come to this realization earlier?
Fast-forward almost seven years, and now Rafael has made a decision favoring the wrong people. In a baffling move, Rafael recently allowed the Ba’ath Party to maintain control over Baghdad University, which included reinstating Saddam’s personal physician, Muhammad al-Rawi, as president. Al-Rawi, for his part, does not seem to have changed his ways. According to the New York Times, ordinary Iraqis got no help from al-Rawi in tearing down a statue of Saddam at Baghdad University; the blight was only removed after the Iraqis turned to Dr. Ahmad Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress—and someone who is hated by most officials at State.
As bad as Rafael is, though, she’s not the problem. State’s culture is. Foggy Bottom places such a premium on “stability” that principles—like liberty and human rights—often get trampled under foot. The Taliban brought the promise of “stability.” Keeping Ba’ath Party members and Saddam’s personal physician in place contribute to “stability.” Which is why State keeps promoting Rafael—she shares its worldview. An anonymous State Department official justified Rafael’s recent decision to the New York Times as a “pragmatic” one. Being “pragmatic,” of course, is the means to a “stable” end. Which is why State officials in Iraq also recently tapped Ali al-Janabi, a senior Ba’ath Party member, to become Minister of Health.
Rafael and other Foggy Bottom officials have no special affinity for senior Ba’ath Party members, but they do see using them as the “pragmatic” way to rebuild Iraq. State realizes, though, that it can’t express this sentiment publicly. When contacted for comment, a State Department official said, “Senior members of the Ba’ath Party have no place in the building of a new Iraq.” If only.