Not About Oil


Zalmay Khalilzad, currently George W. Bush’s special envoy and US ambassador to Afghanistan, will be transferred as ambassador to Iraq pending Senate confirmation. Contrary to popular belief on the left, the transfer has little to do with his being a past consultant for the oil company UNOCAL. A Village Voice blog by Jarrett Murphy (“Iraq Envoy’s Got Oil On His Resume”) makes the case that mainstream reportage on Khalilzad’s appointment ignored his UNOCAL employment—as if the oil connection explained something about Khalilzad’s appointment. In a much more detailed piece, Larry Everest (“Zalmay Khalilzad: Empire Builder Moves to Iraq,” Revolutionary Worker #1273, April 3 2005), delves deeply into Khalilzad’s history. He brings up the oil connection too, but only as a secondary point to demonstrate Khalilzad’s willingness to work with the fundamentalist and fascist Taliban. Everest makes the more important point that Khalilzad is a founding member of the Project for a New American Century and a major thinker in the neoconservative movement. In other words, a long-term aggressive quest for US hegemony motivates his every move. Still, Everest doesn’t really explain how those long-term goals might be achieved under Khalilzad, or what made Bush pick him. Everest states, “Khalilzad’s nomination…highlights both the centrality of Iraq to [the Bush] agenda and the US imperialists’ determination to press forward with their global plans.” That is, picking Khalilzad, a man who has helped define the neocon agenda, means Washington is standing firm on its current approach. This is certainly true, but there’s more to it than that. Power, conquest, and oil may fill his dreams, but his ideological bent was probably only a small part of the reason for Khalilzad’s appointment. Replacing outgoing ambassador John Negroponte with Khalilzad may represent a last-ditch attempt to deal with a rapidly evolving Iraq that is out of US control.

Zalmay Khalilzad has skills, which he demonstrated in Afghanistan, that make him an ideal choice to achieve US objectives in Iraq. First, he is smart enough to devise his own plans and carry them out to Bush satisfaction. In 2000 when the Taliban were still in power, over a year before he became special envoy to Afghanistan, Khalilzad wrote his own job description. His Washington Monthly piece with Daniel Byman reads in part, “The Clinton administration should appoint a high-level envoy for Afghanistan who can coordinate overall US policy. The envoy must have sufficient stature and access to ensure that he or she is taken seriously in foreign capitals and by local militias. Equally important, the special envoy must be able to shape Afghanistan policy within US bureaucracies.” He knew the complex dynamics of the situation and his article included a plan to remake Afghanistan into a more US-friendly state. After the post-9/11 decision was made to implement “regime change,” Khalilzad, by then a member of Condoleeza Rice’s National Security Council, was the only one around with a scheme already in writing.

Secondly, Khalilzad is a skilled diplomat, unlike previous post-Saddam US ambassadors to Iraq. The Financial Times (Apr 7, 2005) asserts that Khalilzad will bring a “penchant for political negotiation and Middle Eastern-style intrigue” to his Iraq post, and this has a kernel of truth to it. With the new Iraqi goverrnment forming along sectarian lines, taking advantage of the divisions and manipulating the outcome so that it benefits the US will require a good diplomat who appears conciliatory and engaging. To US policy makers, Khalilzad’s Afghan heritage is probably considered an additional asset for such work, since he is “from the region” and a Muslim. Could Washington be opting for subtlety and cleverness in managing its occupation of Iraq? Possibly. At any rate, Khalilzad would certainly use a different approach than the “heavy-handed style” of Bremer or the “behind the scenes approach” of Negroponte (FT).

Thirdly, and most frighteningly, Khalilzad knows how to work with fundamentalists, to compromise with them and convince them that their interests (anti-progressive, pro-state control of private life) are shared by the United States. In Afghanistan, Khalilzad worked under the Reagan administration to support Islamist armed factions to fight the occupying Soviet Union. Later, he urged the US under Clinton to “reengage” with Afghanistan under the Taliban. In the four post-Taliban “nation-building” exercises he has ensured that Northern Alliance warlords and other fundamentalists have been legitimized as cabinet ministers, court officials, and regional governors, and their wishes for religion-based government enshrined in the Constitution. Many of these men have a history just as bad as or worse than the Taliban. By giving them positions of power, Khalilzad has ignored the wishes of the majority of Afghans who would rather see them on trial (Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, “A Call for Justice” ). In addition, it was Khalilzad’s idea for the Karzai government to offer amnesty to the Taliban. Khalilzad calls this practice “co-optation in exchange for cooperation.” The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA, www.rawa.org ) calls it a “treasonable alliance against our nation.”

Zalmay Khalilzad has never threatened fundamentalism’s hold on Afghan politics. Among the most sorry to see Khalilzad leave his country is ultra-conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazil Hady Shinwari, the former head of a Pakistani madrassah (religious school), who Khalilzad helped to power. In an open letter to President Bush, Shinwari pleaded against Khalilzad’s reassignment, saying Afghanistan needed the ambassador “now more than ever,” because “no one else can work as he has been doing.” A Taliban member in all but name, Shinwari has declared that adulterers should be stoned to death, the hands of thieves amputated, and consumers of alcohol given 80 lashes. He has attempted to ban women from singing or dancing in public and declared that, “women should observe Islamic veiling, meaning that they should cover their whole body apart from their faces and hands.” When the editors of a newspaper criticized him, Shinwari closed it down and had the editors arrested for “blasphemy.”

Khalilzad may have been chosen for Iraq precisely because he has a history of bringing fundamentalists on board and using their presence to US advantage. What this means for the people of Iraq is that things may get even worse. Fundamentalists are at the forefront of the anti-US movement in Iraq, and Shi’ite Islamist Ibrahim Al-Jaafari was just appointed prime minister, the most powerful post in the government. Al-Jaafari’s wish to implement Islamic law may set back the clock for women’s rights and other secular advances by half a century (see the New Standard and referenced articles ). Based on his behavior in Afghanistan, Khalilzad as ambassador would at best ignore such changes; but more likely he would quietly encourage them as a way to gain the confidence of Al-Jaafari and other fundamentalist power brokers. In Afghanistan, Khalilzad used the people’s fear of US-backed warlords to both justify the US military presence and get the Afghan people to vote for the moderate Hamid Karzai, a US puppet. It is possible that Khalilzad may try to do something similar in Iraq. That is, with one hand build up the Islamists until they are seen as more of a threat to the Iraqi people than the US military; with the other strengthen the US position with more moderate elements and justify its continued occupation.

Zalmay Khalilzad’s transfer from Afghanistan to Iraq is not merely a sign that the Bush administration will continue imposing US imperial domination on Iraqis or that the US still wants to control Iraqi oil–this was already obvious. Not only is Khalilzad ideologically similar to the rest of the neocons crafting US policy in Iraq, he actually has a chance of accomplishing US objectives. Unlike the other US ambassadors to Iraq he has diplomatic skills and can use a faction-ridden situation to best US advantage. Furthermore, with powerful Islamists in the Iraqi government and Islamist groups leading the anti-US charge, Khalilzad’s history of using fundamentalists to bring about a US-designed framework is just what Washington needs right now in Baghdad. As in Afghanistan, Khalilzad’s tactics could have frightening consequences for the Iraqi people.

James Ingalls ([email protected] ) is a co-director of the Afghan Women’s Mission (www.afghanwomensmission.org), a US-based nonprofit that works in solidarity with RAWA (www.rawa.org ). He is also a staff scientist at the Spitzer Science Center, California Institute of Technology.

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