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October 31, 2001

Federal grants paid for visits by Afghans in '90s
By Steve Miller
THE WASHINGTON TIMES

     The federal government has sponsored two visits to the United States in the past four years by delegations that included Taliban representatives in an effort to expose Afghanistan's ruling militia to Western ways.
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     The stops included Mount Rushmore and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters in Houston.
     In addition, the federal government provided $50 million since 1973 to a university center for Afghan studies. The center's federal funding was stopped in 1995, shortly after the Taliban took power and was described by U.S. officials as a terrorist organization that engaged in serious human rights violations.
     The Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha arranged the visits in 1998 and 1999. The center reached an arrangement in 1997 with oil company Unocal that would give the center $1.8 million over two years to educate the peasants of Afghanistan.
     In return, Unocal hoped that it could establish connections that would allow it to build a 1,000-mile, $1.5 billion oil pipeline from the former Soviet republics of Central Asia to the Arabian Sea.
     The first two visits drew criticism from human rights groups who questioned the role of a public university holding hands with private business interests and engaging with one of the world's worst human rights violators.
     Unocal withdrew from the arrangement in 1998, saying that it found little hope for political stability in the ravaged nation.
     A source at the State Department confirmed that at least some of those visitors were members of the military force that controls 90 percent of Afghanistan.
     "We had direct contact with these [Afghan visitors] on a regular basis," said a State Department official, who asked not to be identified. "We wanted to make sure than they got our message loud and clear, which was to clean up their act on human rights and narcotics and get seriously involved in a peace process.
     "Their reaction was to tell us that bin Laden was a guest and that there are no terrorists and there are no narcotics," the State Department official said. "They told us not to impose our culture on them, and that they were just poor farmers."
     Thomas Gouttierre, director of the center, said the visits were part of the center's efforts to implement more schooling for the people of a Third World nation and to show Afghan leaders the merits of democracy — ideas the Taliban regime opposes.
     He denied that the visitors to the United States were part of the Taliban.
     "I know them," Mr. Gouttierre said. The visitors "support U.S. actions. The Taliban members could not, would not, come."
     He also said that his efforts to establish education programs for women in Afghanistan were thwarted by leaders of the Taliban regime.
     "We would have continued the effort, but Unocal stopped the program," said Mr. Gouttierre, a former senior political affairs officer for a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. "It was an attempt that was, for Unocal, a business pursuit, but it allowed us to continue to try to help the people of Afghanistan."
     Mr. Gouttierre said the project had high hopes for Afghanistan, "a country we knew had come apart, like Humpty Dumpty. We wanted to bring it together."
     "Then we got this small grant from Unocal, and brought a group here, thinking it would be something to help them have dialog and relieve some of those nagging mistrusts they had of each other. It was a really good start, but we were unfortunately not able to sustain it."
     Unocal, based in El Segundo, Calif., laid its plans as fighting was raging between the hard-line Islamic Taliban and the Northern Alliance. A spokesman said enterprise and economic development could help stabilize the region.
     The Center for Afghanistan Studies established campuses in one area controlled by the Northern Alliance and another in one under Taliban control.
     "There were questions raised because of the [Taliban] regime," said Unocal spokesman Barry Lane. "But to put yourself in the 1997 or 1998 mind-set it is wonderful to have this twenty-twenty hindsight but we suspended all operations the earliest we could."
     Mr. Gouttierre also noted that looking back at the visits "means a lot more today than it did even three months ago."
     He called the Taliban a "naive force in terms of world affairs."
     "They are not sophisticated enough to be part of a terrorist network," Mr. Gouttierre said. "But they are strategically important enough that they can harbor someone the Taliban has been persuaded by the Pakistani military forces to do these things."

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