Rogue Statesman

Congressman Dana Rohrabachers absolutely crazy, quite possibly illegal back-channel chats with the villains of Sept. 11

Nowadays, Rohrabacher and his numerous aides are quick to provide copies of the congressman's pre-Sept. 11 rants against the Taliban. They will tell you that he labeled them "a pack of dogs killing anyone" and "the most anti-Western, anti-female, anti-human rights regime in the world." They will also show you records of the congressman berating Clinton administration foreign-policy advisors for misreading Taliban intentions and for trying to negotiate peace in Afghanistan with the militant Islamic group's Mullah Mohammed Omar, a bin Laden associate.

What they won't mention is that Rohrabacher also once lobbied shamelessly for the Taliban. A November/December 1996 article in Washington Report on Middle East Affairs reported, "The potential rise of power of the Taliban does not alarm Rohrabacher" because the congressman believes the "Taliban could provide stability in an area where chaos was creating a real threat to the U.S." Later in the article, Rohrabacher claimed that:

Taliban leaders are "not terrorists or revolutionaries." Media reports documenting the Taliban's harsh, radical beliefs were "nonsense." The Taliban would develop a "disciplined, moral society" that did not harbor terrorists. The Taliban posed no threat to the U.S.

Although he continues to describe himself as an expert on Afghan history and politics, Rohrabacher was obviously dead wrong on all counts.

Evidence of Rohrabacher's attempts to conduct his own foreign policy became public on April 10, 2001, not in the U.S., but in the Middle East. On that day, ignoring his own lack of official authority, Rohrabacher opened negotiations with the Taliban at the Sheraton Hotel in Doha, Qatar, ostensibly for a "Free Markets and Democracy" conference. There, Rohrabacher secretly met with Taliban Foreign Minister Mullah Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, an advisor to Mullah Omar. Diplomatic sources claim Muttawakil sought the congressman's assistance in increasing U.S. aid—already more than $100 million annually—to Afghanistan and indicated that the Taliban would not hand over bin Laden, wanted by the Clinton administration for the fatal bombings of two American embassies in Africa and the USS Cole. For his part, Rohrabacher handed Muttawakil his unsolicited plans for war-torn Afghanistan. "We examined a peace plan," he laconically told reporters in Qatar.

To this day, the congressman has refused to divulge the contents of his plan. However, several diplomatic sources say it's likely he asked the extremists to let former Afghan King Zahir Shah return as the figurehead of a new coalition government. In numerous speeches before and after Sept. 11, Rohrabacher has claimed the move would help stabilize Afghanistan for an important purpose: the construction of an oil pipeline there. In return, the plan would reportedly have allowed the Taliban to maintain power until "free" elections could be called.

The idea was outlandish and even provocative. Though he is a member of the same ethnic tribe as the Taliban leadership, the 87-year-old exiled former king—who lost his throne in 1973—is known not for his appreciation of democracy, but for his coziness to Western corporate interests. With good reason, he was considered a U.S. puppet by the Taliban.

After Taliban-related terrorists attacked the U.S. last September, Rohrabacher associates worked hard to downplay the Qatar meeting. Republican strategist Grover Norquist told a reporter that the congressman had accidentally encountered the Taliban official in a hotel hallway.

But that preposterous assertion is contradicted by much evidence:

•Qatari government officials who told Al-Jazeera television on April 10, 2001, that Rohrabacher sought the meeting in advance and that they had assisted in the arrangements. Muttawakil said he agreed to the meeting "on the basis of allowing each party to express their point of view."

•The congressman himself told other Middle Eastern news outlets that his discussions with the Taliban were "frank and open" and their officials were "thoughtful and inquisitive." Hardly a casual chat in the hallway.

•Similarly, in an interview with Agence France-Presse, Rohrabacher's entourage described the meeting as "a high-level talk."

What's remarkable is not only Rohrabacher's attempt to rewrite history after Sept. 11, but there's also his glaring naivete, evident in his bungling assessment of the Qatar meeting. One member of his entourage, Khaled Saffuri, executive director of the Islamic Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based group that partially bankrolled Rohrabacher's trip, said he was impressed by how "flexible" Taliban officials appeared. Rohrabacher came away equally impressed. He announced he would travel to Afghanistan to work out details with the Taliban.

But Rohrabacher was out of his league. In the Afghan capital of Kabul the next day, Muttawakil presented Rohrabacher's plan to the Taliban. Mullah Omar immediately issued a statement denouncing American efforts to orchestrate a new Afghanistan government. "The infidel world is not letting Muslims form a government of their own choice," he declared.

More darkly, 137 miles east across the border in Pakistan, Osama bin Laden measured the distance between Rohrabacher and diplomatic reality. "I issue a call to the young generation to get ready for the holy war and to prepare for that in Afghanistan," he said during an April 11, 2001, pro-Taliban rally in Peshawar broadcast throughout the region. "I appeal to you to teach Muslims that there is no honor except in holy war." The hard-line crowd of 200,000 carried pictures of burning American flags and chanted, "U.S., listen to us! We are the death of you!"

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