- 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
- 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
Sr 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.