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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, November/December 1996, page 8


Congressman Dana Rohrabacher: An Expert on South and Central Asia

by Shirl McArthur

Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher from California’s 45th District (Huntington Beach), spent two weeks visiting Afghanistan, with stops in Italy, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan at the end of August and the beginning of September. With the fall of the Afghan capital, Kabul, to the Sunni Islamist Taliban militia, and considering Rohrabacher’s outspoken criticism of current U.S. policy toward Iraq at a recent House International Relations Committee hearing, we felt it would be interesting to our readers to interview him.

Rohrabacher, a native Californian, will be beginning his fifth term in Congress in 1997. Previously he served for seven years as a speech writer in the Reagan White House. He is a member of the House Science and International Relations committees. Within the International Relations committee, his subcommittee assignments have included the Asia and Pacific subcommittee and the International Economic Policy and Trade subcommittee. Although the 105th Congress has yet to be organized, Rohrabacher expects to be on those same subcommittees.

En route to the Middle East, Rohrabacher stopped in Rome to meet with former Afghan King Zahir Shah. In Afghanistan, in addition to spending time in Kabul, Rohrabacher visited with Gen. Abdul Rasheed Dostam at his headquarters at Mazar-e Sharif, in the north. Dostam is now in a position to play a key role in Afghanistan. Although Dostam collaborated with the Communist government in the past, Rohrabacher believes that he wants to put the past behind him and be an important part of Afghanistan’s future.

A Disciplined Afghanistan

The potential rise to power of the Taliban does not alarm Rohrabacher, because the Taliban could provide stability in an area where chaos was creating a real threat to the U.S. Rohrabacher says that under the previous situation Afghanistan was becoming a major source of drugs and a haven for terrorists “an anarchistic state of narco-terrorism.” In contrast, the Taliban leaders have already shown that they intend to establish a disciplined, moral society.

Rohrabacher calls the sensational media reporting of the “harsh” imposition of strict Islamic behavior, with the underlying implication that this somehow threatens the West, “nonsense.” He says the Taliban are devout traditionalists, not terrorists or revolutionaries, and, in contrast to the Iranians, they do not seem intent on exporting their beliefs. Rohrabacher would have preferred to see a negotiated compromise among the various factions (but with no role for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar) rather than a bloody confrontation. But in the absence of such a compromise, he believes a Taliban takeover would be a positive development.

An interesting speculation that we have not seen elsewhere was Rohrabacher’s pointing out that the Taliban are mostly Pushtuns from the Khandahar region of Afghanistan, and King Zahir Shah is also a Pushtun from Khandahar. Rohrabacher says that there is a major faction among the Taliban that supports the return of Zahir Shah, and Rohrbacher would not be surprised to see him return at some point if the Taliban establishes full control over the country. In this regard, during his meeting with Rohrabacher, General Dostam spoke in favor of the return of the King, and he has since made similar comments publicly.

Rohrabacher dismissed speculation from some quarters that a Taliban takeover would lead to increased Pakistani influence in Afghanistan, upsetting both India and Iran and leading to further instability in the area if either of those countries feel that Pakistan has gained significant control over Afghanistan. He said that Pakistan has learned, as did the British a century and a half ago, that no outside force can “control” the Afghans. He believes that India and Iran, as well as the new nations of former Soviet Central Asia, would soon enough learn that they have nothing to fear from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

On another subject, at a hearing in late September of the House International Relations Committee on U.S. policy in the Gulf, Rohrabacher criticized the Clinton administration’s responding to Saddam Hussain’s violation of the northern “safe” areas by launching cruise missile attacks on Iraqi targets in southern Iraq. He questioned whether it made sense to act against Saddam in response to actions in his own country. Rohrabacher also asked Assistant Secretary of State Pelletreau whether he was aware that Gulf leaders were convinced that Clinton had acted solely for domestic political reasons, but he did not get a direct answer. In our interview, Rohrabacher said that he believes that America’s allies, whether in the Gulf or elsewhere, expect the U.S. to make tough decisions and act on them; but they also expect the U.S. to be a thoughtful nation, basing its decisions on solid military or geopolitical criteria, and taking into account the views of our allies, rather than acting from purely domestic political motives.

Rohrabacher has a reputation among Arab-Americans as being very strong on Muslim issues, supporting the rights of the Muslim populations in South Asia, the Central Asian republics, Bosnia and elsewhere, as well as the civil rights of Muslims in the U.S. However, some Arab Americans believe that he follows the Israeli line regarding Arab-Israeli issues. We asked for his reaction to this comment. He said he did not think it fair. He said he tries to follow a pro-American policy in the Middle East, neither pro-Israel nor pro-Arab. He believes the most pro-American policy is peace, and he will support whatever in his opinion furthers the cause of peace. He says, however, that U.S. policy must be based on realism.

Rohrabacher has not become deeply involved in Arab-Israeli issues, primarily because he believes he can be more effective by directing his attention to south and Central Asia. For example, he believes the U.S. has paid scant attention to the question of peace in Kashmir, and he is concerned about developments in the Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union. Because of that concern, he hopes that in the 105th Congress the Asia and Pacific subcommittee’s area will be expanded to include the Central Asian republics.