June 20, 2005 – An Afghan-born intellectual with ties to leading neoconservatives and the oil industry sailed through the Senate confirmation process on his way to becoming the new US Ambassador to Iraq. This despite drawing criticism in Afghanistan for what appears to have been backdoor political maneuvering during that countryâ€™s presidential election last fall, and for the recent rise in the opium trade and resurgence of the Taliban.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last Wednesday approved Zalmay Khalilzadâ€™s nomination, clearing the way for confirmation by the full Senate, which happened one day later.
At a confirmation hearing earlier this month, Khalilzad -- whose public statements indicate he is in lock step with President Bush on Iraq -- did not face much resistance from senators. Republicans and Democrats alike praised him for his work in Afghanistan, spending little time cross-examining his record there or pressing him on his plans for Iraq.
But outside the Senate, Khalilzad opponents abound. Critics nicknamed Khalilzad the "Viceroy" of Afghanistan, saying he appeared to be directing the government of President Hamid Karzai rather than merely representing Washington.
At a farewell news conference in Kabul Thursday, Khalilzad was unapologetic and pledged to use the same hands-on approach in Iraq. "I have a philosophy in terms of how I do my job," Khalilzad said. "I will be the same person in the two different environmentsâ€¦ I will be proactive; I will be very engaged."
Fair Elections or Strong-Arm Politics?
At his confirmation hearing, Khalilzad told senators he would help Iraqis establish "an open and representative political process in which all Iraqis can take part." He emphasized plans to establish conditions for "fair" national elections later this year in which Iraqis are slated to elect a permanent government.
But some international election observers and several Afghan politicians whoâ€™ve dealt directly with Khalilzad predict that the ambassador will try to orchestrate a political process that is favorable to US-friendly politicians.
Last fall, candidates running against US-supported president Hamid Karzai in Afghanistanâ€™s national elections accused Khalilzad of effectively serving as Karzaiâ€™s campaign manager. The ambassador appeared with Karzai at several high-profile public events in the days before the vote. At some of those events Karzai dedicated US-funded reconstruction projects, celebrating with Khalilzad a sudden influx of American cash on the eve of the election.
"The American ambassador accompanying him everywhere is undermining his credibility," Andrew Wilder, an analyst with the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, told The Australian last October, just before the countryâ€™s first popular elections. "It confirms to the Afghans that Khalilzad is the real power in the country and that there is more interest in the outcome than in having a meaningful process," Wilder added.
Some of Karzaiâ€™s opponents also accused Khalilzad of direct campaigning, even political arm-twisting, on behalf of Karzai in the days before the election.
Former candidate Mohammed Mohaqiq told The Austrailian that Khalilzad offered him a deal to withdraw from the election and support Karzai in exchange for cabinet posts for some of his key supporters.
"I am not the only one he has visited," Mohaqiq said last fall. "He has done the same thing with many other candidates." Mohaqiq added, "We all know the Americans are not interested in a real election, they just want Karzai to win."
Abdul Latif Pedram, another challenger, told the New York Times that in addition to pressure from Khalilzad, a poorly funded election process designed to benefit Karzai was implemented quickly with the effect of neutralizing most challengers who stayed in the race.Pedram noted that he and the other challengers did not have the resources to visit the country's 34 provinces. Meanwhile, the American military was flying Karzai around Afghanistan. "Mr. Karzai can go with American helicopters and American bodyguards to ten provinces in one day," Pedram told the Times last September.
American officials denied the charges of direct meddling by Khalilzad, but several United Nations and Afghan election observers criticized Karzaiâ€™s government and the US for pressuring the UN to organize a hasty, poorly funded election.
"It's hard not to conclude that this was so much about getting an end result and not [about] having a meaningful process," Wilder told the Times.
Battling the Resistance with Guns, Propaganda
Given the recent surge in deadly attacks by rebels in Iraq, including a car bombing in Baghdad last week that nearly killed the acting US ambassador, Khalilzad may find it difficult to engage Iraqis beyond the heavily fortified "Green Zone" where the US embassy is located.
"He'll have much less space to operate in Iraq -- literally," Frederick Barton, an analyst with the centrist Center for Strategic and International Studies, told the LA Times. "There are constraints in getting around in Afghanistan, but he'll find it much more volatile, much edgier, in Iraq," Barton said.
Although some US military commanders and analysts have recently acknowledged that the insurgency is not likely to be defeated by military means alone, Khalilzad insisted during his confirmation hearing that American and Iraqi forces could achieve military success.
"The back of the insurgency can be broken within a reasonable period of time," he told the committee. When questioned further on the time frame, Khalilzad did not give details, suggesting only that it would take less than the ten years some analysts have predicted.
In addition to supporting aggressive military campaigns against suspected insurgents, Khalilzad favors a ramped up public relations effort â€“ what he calls "public diplomacy" â€“ to win the support of ordinary Iraqis.
From his perspective, it is not so much US goals and policies in Iraq that are fueling the insurgency and creating widespread opposition to the military occupation, but rather the way in which US officials present those goals and policies. Khalilzad told senators that as ambassador he would do a better job of explaining "our goals and policies to the Iraqi people in order to strengthen their confidence in the United States."
Such an approach appears to involve manipulating widely understood facts through the creative use of language when explaining some of the most sensitive issues related to the ongoing occupation.
When questioned by Senator Barrack Obama (D-Illinois) at his confirmation hearing about the perception among Iraqis that the US had designs on Iraqi oil and planned to build permanent military bases there, Khalilzad flatly denied that the US had any such intentions.
"There is no US plan for permanent military bases in Iraq or plans for usurping Iraqi resources," Khalilzad said.
But Pentagon officials reportedly told the Washington Post last month that the military indeed had plans to build long-lasting facilities, including offices and barracks, at four sites in Iraq where American soldiers are headquartered. Officials acknowledged that the structures would have a permanent character, but they told the Post that US forces would be stationed at these locations as part of a base "consolidation" plan rather than a permanent military mission.
Previously, military planners referred to such facilities as "enduring bases," a term the Pentagon later changed to "contingency operating bases," according to the Post.
As for Iraqi industry, Paul Bremer, the top administrator with the now defunct US-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), signed a series of orders to privatize much of Iraqâ€™s state-owned industrial sector, with the exception of the banking, insurance and oil industries. Although Bremerâ€™s assignment ended nearly a year ago, his orders are binding on Iraqâ€™s transitional government.
The Bush administration supports plans to reduce Iraqâ€™s foreign debt, accumulated under Saddam Hussein, by privatizing oil resources. Privatization would allow transnational oil companies, many which are based in the US, access to Iraqâ€™s vast oil reserves at extremely low prices.
Connections to Big Oil, Taliban
Khalilzad has given no indication that he intends to oppose the privatization of the Iraqâ€™s oil industry. In fact, the ambassador himself has experience working on behalf of major oil companies wanting access to resources in Central Asia and the Middle East.
In the mid-1990s, Khalilzad worked for Cambridge Energy Associates, a for-profit consulting firm. There he conducted risk analyses for Unocal Corp, an oil company that signed business agreements with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan to build an oil pipeline through the country, the Washington Post reported. Afghan president Hamid Karzai also worked previously for Unocal.
In addition to visiting with Taliban leaders who toured the US with Unocal executives in 1997, Khalilzad lobbied the Clinton administration to "reengage" the fundamentalist regime through "economic reconstruction."
Khalilzad also argued that the Talibanâ€™s brand of Islam was moderate by comparison to that practiced by regimes in neighboring countries. "The Taliban does not practice the anti-US style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran," Khalilzad wrote in a 1996 Washington Post opinion piece.
By 2000, Khalilzad had changed his tune, arguing that the US must confront the Taliban.
"Soon the movement will be too strong to turn away from rogue behavior," Khalilzad wrote in Washington Quarterly, a policy journal published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It will gain more influence with insurgents, terrorists and narcotics traffickers and spread its abusive ideology throughout the region."
After the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, Khalilzad advised President Bush from his post on the National Security Council. He was appointed special envoy to Afghanistan by Bush in 2001 and became ambassador to that country in late 2003.
Resurgence of the Taliban, Opium trade
Khalilzad leaves Afghanistan in the midst of a sharp increase in attacks by rebels connected to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Just last week, insurgents using land mines killed four people, including two boys, in two separate attacks, the Associated Press reported.
Karzaiâ€™s administration warned last month that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda would be likely to unleash new attacks in the run up to Afghanistanâ€™s next elections scheduled for September.
Khalilzad told reporters at his farewell news conference that Afghans should expect more violence, adding that the Karzai government had a "good plan in place" to deal with insurgents, although he did not elaborate.
The resurgence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda has been accompanied by a sharp rise in opium production, in which elements of the Taliban are reportedly involved.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that in 2004, opium cultivation in Afghanistan increased by two-thirds, with the opium economy now valued at about 60 percent of Afghanistanâ€™s 2003 Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
"Opium cultivation also spread to all 32 provinces," the UN reported last year, "making narcotics the main engine of economic growth and the strongest bond among previously quarrelsome populations."
The UN warned that Afghanistan could deteriorate into a narco-state controlled more by violent drug traffickers, terrorists and warlords than by the elected government in Kabul.
Critics say the crisis in Afghanistan is the direct result of US policies administered by Khalilzad, American military commanders and the Karzai government. Those policies include making close alliances with organized crime syndicates and so-called "warlords" who constitute formal or informal authority in different regions of the country. Such figures initially opposed the Taliban but were also suspected of being involved in drug smuggling. Some smugglers have reportedly been given posts in the Afghan police force.
"Drug money is absolutely supporting terrorist groups," Alexandre Schmidt, an official with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, told the LA Times. Schmidt said most smuggling related arrests in Afghanistan are dropped within two days, owing to intervention by authorities within the Afghan government.
Jawed Ludin, a spokesperson for Karzai, acknowledged to the LA Times that members of organized crime gangs are employed in the national police force, with help from what the Times termed "senior government officials."
Karzai initially promised to choose officials based on merit, rather than cobbling together a coalition of crime lords to placate warlords. But after reportedly being pressed by US officials, Karzai accommodated several of the latter with positions in the central government.
Afghan Roots, Neocon Views
Although born in Afghanistan, Khalilzad attended college at American University in Beirut and the University of Chicago, where he received a Ph.D. in political science. He became a US citizen in the 1980s while working in the Reagan administration.
As a Cold War hawk, Khalilzad strongly supported US government funding for the Islamic fundamentalist mujahideen fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, a group that attracted militants, including Osama bin Laden, from across the Middle East.
While serving as an adviser to President George H. W. Bush in the early 1990s, he reportedly developed strong alliances with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and current Vice President Dick Cheney, with whom he shared a political outlook.
In 1998, as a member of the Project for a New American Century, a neoconservative think tank that advocates military-driven expansion of US political and corporate influence, Khalilzad, along with Wolfowitz and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, signed a letter to President Clinton advocating the military overthrow of Saddam Hussein.