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Last Updated: 12/07/2009
Developing Afghanistan: Past Experiences from Jack Maresca
Interview conducted by Nicole Loschke- PCM Assistant Editor

Q: Knowing what you know about the development of Afghanistan and reflecting back on the political climate after the Cold War, compared to now, how do you see Afghanistan developing? Are there changes in the situation from after the Cold War to now? Do you see a similar progress?

A: Well, I think the essential things are still the same, meaning it’s a country which is isolated, which is ethnically divided, always has been, and has always been a real challenge for outsiders. There’s no question.

This the reason why, for example, in the 19th century both the Russians, from their empire in the North and the British from their empire in the South wanted to build railroads to Kabul. There is not a single kilometer of railroad anywhere in Afghanistan. The railheads come up to the border in the South and in the North and then they stop.

That, I think demonstrates the challenges for outsiders to have any real impact in the country. The hostility has always been very strong.

I think in that sense it really hasn’t changed very much, there is this hostility towards outsiders, whoever they may be. The Russians learned the same lesson, when they went in 30 years ago and had to withdrawal; very similar experience to the British in the 19th century, so there’s that.

There is also the ethnic divisions between the Pashtun and the Tajiks and so forth; that hasn’t changed either, it’s a very basic element and many experts argue that it’s illogical as a country. Afghanistan was created by the British in-fact, they lumped together three major ethnic groups and a couple other lesser ethnic groups to form a very artificial nation; it hasn’t ever really worked very well. There’s always just as much fighting among them as there is towards outsiders, none of that has changed.

Furthermore, it has this element of religious extremism, which is now represented by the Taliban. There to, it’s always been there. The treatment of women has always been more oppressive in Afghanistan than right next door in Iran, for example. So, these things remain the same, and I don’t see anything in the situation right now that would lead me to think that it’s going to change. We would have to, to my mind, if the West really wants to have some affect on these fundamental factors, we would have to stay there for 50 years.

Q: You’re saying that the Western countries should have an affect on these fundamental factors, but what affect could there be? What change could we be making?

A: I think the ideal situation in Afghanistan, and I think this is the most optimistic thing one could hope for there, would be to bring about an evolution toward a moderate form of Islam.

So, if you could bring about, in some fashion, an evolution of the extreme form of Islam that’s present in the Taliban for example, to something that is more moderate and tolerant, then that would be a huge change. And probably would make everything possible, in Afghanistan, bearing in mind it’s at a very basic kind of level of development, it needs all kinds of economic development too.

The economic development is really not possible as long as you have this extremism of the Taliban there, so that would be the basic thing. But, how one can do it? I mean no one knows how to do it. And all the efforts that have been made so far have basically failed.

Unfortunately I think the Islamic world is not really facing up to this change either, they could help. But, for various cultural leaders it’s not easy for them to exercise this kind of leadership towards moderation…

How can a culture as alien to the Taliban and to Afghanistan as American culture hope to kind of bring about a gradual evolution? It’s just too different, it’s widely different, so that’s the challenge.

Q: So now, with results of the last “elections,” can you reflect on the possible progress of Afghanistan. As you said, there’s really no option unless the Islamic community pulls together to ‘disperse’ of the Taliban…

A: I would call it less dispersal than bringing about an intellectual, cultural evolution, that is what is really needed. For sure it will take a long time; it can’t be brought about in a matter of a few years. We’re talking in terms of generations here. That moderation, I think, is what is needed; in the treatment of women, in the acceptance of economic development, for example, is essential there, otherwise people will die. People are dying all the time from lack of very basic economic attributes.

That was the situation at the beginning, so we wanted to start this, but it proved totally impossible. Even now, just last week I was told that there was a shipment of generic medicines, which had been shipped out there, donated by generic medicine companies. And it was being held at the airport in Kabul waiting for an 8,000 dollar fee, taxing incoming medicines that were to be distributed free, that had been donated, delivered to be distributed free, and they were going to be taxed. So you just throw up your hands.

So, these are sort-of minor affects of the general antipathy toward any kind of economic assistance, or aid, or development; all of these things have to be changed, but they can’t be changed over night, it takes generations.

Q: If there was going to be development in Afghanistan, or if this modern change of Islam were to happen and they allowed Western development, then how could the West be responsibly involved? International trade and development is a delicate balance of profit and providing sustainable development for the community. Can you reflect on your previous experiences?

A: Let me sketch out for you the story of the pipeline, then we can go into details, this is a very complicated story.

Basically, “The pipeline” doesn’t exist, it never got off the ground; although the Asian development bank and some others are still thinking about it, doing studies and trying to interest investors…

Q: And it’s natural gas?

A: Yes, it’s natural gas.

What we were talking about, at the time, was a huge pipeline; a meter in diameter, buried under two meters of earth, crossing the country from Turkmenistan, where the gas sources was, to Pakistan, where it was going to be used.There’s a huge natural gas deposit in that corner of Turkmenistan, it’s called Dauletabad gas field, it isn’t really used right now, it’s just sitting there, but its known. At the time and I think still, the Paks needed that pass, because they generate electricity. They have a whole series of electrical generation plants for generating electricity for their grid.

The way they were fueling those plants at the time, and still largely, was with coal. Coal was brought, imported by barges from Africa (around Mozambique), up the rivers into Pakistan, to Multan, which is a city you can find, that’s a big electrical generation plant, and a few other places where they would use the coal, burn the coal in order to generate electricity. It was very polluting, it was very costly, it was very vulnerable, because sometimes the barges would sink; it was really a terrible kind of way, very totally inefficient way to produce electricity; so they needed it.

So, the theory, the idea, was that this gas would be taken across Afghanistan delivered there, and the Paks were ready to convert their electrical generation plants to use of gas, which would have been cleaner, cheaper, all kinds of good things.

But, right in the middle of course was Afghanistan where there was a war going on. There was a Civil War between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance; both absolutely horrible groups.

The Taliban, we know all about the Taliban, but the Northern alliance was just as bad. Here were these warlords keeping 12 year-old concubines as slaves, fighting among themselves, just killing people; they were just as bad. But, there was a war going on, so what were we supposed to do?

The other factor in this kind of a situation, which you should understand, is that nobody has cash to build a two billion dollar pipeline; everybody thinks the oil companies are so rich, but nobody has that kind of money.

But, the main factor here was that there wasn’t a government that was in control of the region. To get a loan from the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank, or any other bank for that matter, one of the requirements is that you have to have a government which is recognized, key word- recognized, by the member states of the World Bank, which includes the United States. With the United States, they will not recognize a government unless they’re convinced that it’s devoted to human rights, and this and this and this.

For example in my testimony, my much maligned testimony before congress, I said we couldn’t possibly build a pipeline until there was a single recognized government in Afghanistan.

That was the specific language that they use in the World Bank, and what it means is that it has to be recognized also for the way it deals with human rights, that’s the way the United States recognizes a government. So the language actually meant we cant’ do it until there is a government that is respecting human rights which is constitutionally based, stable and so-forth, we just cant do it, there’s a war going on.

No oil company is going out advocating that sort of thing; these companies are not that stupid.

UNOCAL has operations all over the world; they’re constantly negotiating with governments. The idea that we would be advocating an invasion of Afghanistan is totally looney. But these are the kind of conspiracy theories that you have out there; but we just couldn’t go ahead with it because of this.

I believe, I still believe now, that if we had been able to build such a pipeline, it would have been a history changing kind of thing. Why? Well, because we would have provided power, in passing, as a side-effect, to Kabul and Kandahar— two of the major cities.

Q: And so in your negotiations; if they agreed, part of the plan was to extend the pipeline to those communities?

A: We were never able to negotiate with any Afghan entity, the most we were able to do, the most we chose to do, we could have entered into a negation with either group, but that would have been crazy, we knew that.

Above all, the men have been involved in fighting for so long that there are whole generations that don’t know how to paint or do rick and mortar. So we did those two things, we were trying to provide basic skills, to substitute for carrying a weapon, as an alternative. And then we were trying to provide home schools for girls who were unable to go to school otherwise.

So, we spent that much money per year on that, but we never could engage in an actual negotiation. But, in our briefings we always pointed out that we would have a spur from the pipeline which would go to Kabul and also probably to Kandahar, that was a lesser option.

It’s very important in Kabul, because Kabul has no energy, essentially; there is some electrical energy from dams, generators. But the dams are falling apart, the generators are falling apart, it’s very unstable, totally inadequate.

So, the main source of energy in Kabul is diesel generators in the backyard. The fuel for the diesel generators; it’s so absurd it’s almost like a joke, is brought in trucks, tanker trucks, through the Khyber Pass, if you can imagine that. So, the main way that you heat your house, or have some electricity in your house, or in your hospital or school, is with a diesel generator in the backyard, fueled by trucks coming through the Khyber Pass; I mean its looney. We could have fixed all that, but of course we couldn’t do it.

You know, the instant Al Qaeda appeared, which nobody had ever heard of Al Qaeda until they blew up two of our embassies in East Africa. I remembered very distinctly, when those things had blown up, two embassies blew up; nobody knew immediately who it was who had blown them up. Then about two days later, the story started coming out saying there’s this thing called Al Qaeda, based in Afghanistan, led by Osama bin Laden; nobody had ever heard of Osama bin Laden.

Within a couple of days I had sent a memo around to our company saying we got to get out; we cannot be in the position where we’re trying to do something in a country which is sheltering terrorists, that have just blown up two U.S. embassies. And the company, to its credit I think, instantly decided to get out; they pulled all the plugs, they lost a huge amount of money on the deal, but they pulled out, killed the deal, and it hasn’t been revived since.

Q: So now, you work at the University for Peace. But, lets pretend that Obama were to come to you and say, “Jack, help me with development issues in Afghanistan.” Because now we have more troops being sent. Nobody really knows, except for the pursuit of terrorist, nobody knows what can be done.

A: I think Obama is faced with an almost impossible choice; because if he decides to stay, as I said earlier, it’s a 50 year challenge. Do we really have the stomach in the U.S. to undertake that challenge? Every year we’ll be bleeding soldiers; that’s one choice. The other choice is gradually lowering the level of commitments to get out, but then you will throw it back in the hands of terrorists of the worst kind. Granted, the Karzai government and the elections are totally imperfect, but they’re the only thing you got; it’s a very weak read. I just think that he’s faced with an impossible choice. Probably, that’s why he’s taking time with it. Nobody knows what to do there.

What I would do for development in Afghanistan? You know I’ve tried so many different things there, I could tell you so many stories.

At one point, my NGO wanted to modernize the grain milling system; because, here you have to back-up a little bit. Afghanistan is a mixed culture of rice and wheat; so they make bread, but they also grow rice. Most cultures are either bread-based or rice-based. But, in Afghanistan, in some of those countries, it’s both. So the growing of grain and the milling of grain into flour has always been an essential element in the economic situation, but flour mills are decrepit; they haven’t been modernized in years.

What happened as soon as the U.S. went in, the war and so-forth happened, and the United States started shipping all kinds of aid to Afghanistan. One of the things the U.S. always ships when it goes into an aid situation like that is surplus wheat; which in this particular case was ground into flour in India so that it arrived in big sacks, big flour sacks. You can see pictures of this, it says “USAID” and it’s a big sack of ground flour, white flour, free.

Instantly, that just killed the grain growing efforts in Afghanistan. Every farmer who was growing grain, which he would then take to the local mill to have ground into flour and that’s where he sold it, couldn’t sell it because the place was flooded with free American flour, already ground into flour. So all those farmers, what did they do? They started raising poppies. The reason they became the champion growers of poppies is because we flooded the market in Afghanistan, which had previously been self-sufficient for grain and flour; we flooded it with our surplus flour for free. Did we somehow expect that these grain farmers could then survive by growing wheat?

There were things like that going on, I can’t tell you how many things like that were going on, that were just so looney. How can you make it work if you’re operating like that? It’s total chaos. Now, we’re struggling to overcome the poppy efforts going on. But what do you expect farmers to do? It’s very arid land; there are only so many things they can grow in this kind of a climate.

I actually, about a year before I came here, I pulled the plug on everything we were doing there. It became too dangerous and difficult; we now track it a little bit, because of these medicines going in. And the results is basically, I’ve come to the conclusion, it’s kind of hopeless, unless you are really prepared, as I say, to go into a half of century kind of mode, and I don’t think anybody is ready for that in the United States.

Q: But even still, me as being the “future” of the UN as a UPEACE graduate, I don’t have any idea either, because you have modernization and development versus traditionalism. If development could happen, yes, maybe poverty levels would reduce and the economy could improve; but at the same time, they don’t want it to improve, because then they’re becoming “Western” and that’s the last thing…

A: The Taliban are against economic development for sure. Yes.

Q: Someone has to give on something and, like you said, I agree that Obama just shouldn’t be there, and the situation should be left to them, but then you have the war on terrorism.

A: The theory, it’s not necessarily so, but the theory is that, if we were to leave, you would have, of course the Taliban are already there, but you would have Al Qaeda coming in too; being protected by the Taliban, reestablishing themselves and becoming a threat again, that’s the theory. Whether it’s true or not, I don’t know, maybe not.

This is why I think, trying to think of it logically, which isn’t always the most relevant way to think about it, but if you think about it logically, one of the few elements in the world that really could help, if they wanted to, would be the moderate Islam groups or tendency, but who among them? It’s difficult to see any that could really step up to this kind of a challenge. Most of them are under some kind of challenge themselves; from more radical elements, whatever.

So, it’s very difficult to see how you could do it; I don’t have any real answers.

One of the areas which we have not really pursued is a better relationship with moderate Islam. This is something that we do lip-service to, but we’re really not doing much. It’s difficult, because, this incident the other day at Ft. Hood, Texas is a good indicator of how difficult it is, and controversial.

I think another element in the picture is Iran, which could be very helpful there. Half of Afghanistan is, in any case, Persian by history and culture. So, the Iranians could be helpful, but right now we’re not engaged with the Iranians in any process; nobody knows how to do that either.

The Paks, on the other side, are in a defensive mode, they’re not in a position, I don’t think, to really be working to establish something in Afghanistan, because they’re under fire themselves. They should be, they have the most natural relationship, and in many ways created the Taliban.

Q: I am a different generation, so I have a different point of reference and that is September 11th. But this recent attack on the hotel where the UN delegates were staying, has that been done in such an extreme way before in Afghanistan? Regardless, what does it mean now for the UN and their cooperation?

A: To answer your second question first, I don’t think it will have much affect on the U.N., they will have to have tighter security; it’s much the same episode that they went through in Iraq, they then went back in, gradually, with a lot more security, keeping a lot of the key personnel in Jordan, but they went back. They will have to go through the same kind of cycle here; I don’t think that will have any long-term affects.

And the incident, I think, is just the latest in the lot of terrorist attacks; granted it is the first one that was directed against the U.N. Maybe the U.N thinks that somehow they’re safe and somehow represent every people in the world, but they are not viewed that way by the Taliban, just as they weren’t in Iraq. That they would be targeted, I think, is a pretty obvious thing. But, other than that, it’s no different from other attacks that have gone on every week. So, I don’t think it’s a major shift in that sense; it’s just part of a continuing terrorism that’s been going on.

Another possibility, at least theoretical possibility, is somehow dividing the Taliban; the moderates versus the violent ones, because, like any movement like that, there are moderate voices.

I had some contact with the Taliban, you may know if you’ve been looking into these past things. I did go to Kandahar, I had a briefing session with them; it was a very hairy trip. It was a real experience, it was a briefing session, so I stood up in front of a whole room full of Mullahs, these Talibs; all very grim faced, not a peep, not a smile anywhere, must of been about 100 of them in the room, all wore exactly the same kind of robes.

Q: And at this point, you were working for…?

A: For UNOCAL; this is when we briefed them on what we were planning to do, what we were hoping to do; told them about the pipeline, told them things like we would hire women on the same basis as men for jobs on the pipeline, that was a very popular announcement, various things like that. We’re an American company, we have to abide by American laws, and American laws are very strict on these things, so we would hire women on the same basis of men.

Amazingly at the time, there’s a university in the North, by Muzari Sharif, it’s an original Afghan University. They have an engineering school and they produce petroleum engineers and they have continued through everything to produce graduates also in engineering fields like petroleum engineering.

In the oil business, they use petroleum engineers. They had a significant number of women graduates; Afghan women graduates who were petroleum engineers. We had found all of there names, we had identified lots of well-qualified people we could hire. This was, of course, a way of trying to respond to the criticism in the United States that was going on at that time. I don’t know if you would remember it; you wouldn’t remember it, but maybe you have read about it.

Where there would once in a while be picketing outside the UNOCAL offices that somehow we were cooperating with the Taliban and therefore were exploring a relationship with the Taliban; we were very sensitive to that, I was the lead guy in the company saying, you have to pay head to that. You have to make sure that you’re unscrupulously clean, absolutely clean in our policies, absolutely, rigorously ensuring human rights, gender neutrality, everything- super clean, because otherwise we then were subject to criticism, so we were working hard to do that; these were all parts of the same effort.

But, anyway, as I say, it wasn’t the most popular thing to ask the Talibs.

I was probably lucky to get out.

Q: For me, that’s the biggest factor here is media, especially with the technology advancing to where it is, along with globalization. Media, for me, is the key to peace in the 22nd century, because every conflict is so blown out of proportion; all the leaders are so disconnected from the actual problems, and I see the media as the tool that’s doing that. The media grabs on to these things, but nobody knows why and nobody knows the real roots and the real reasons.

A: I’ve been a mediator in conflicts in a lot of places; you can find also on the web, for example, if you’re interested, another testimony by me in front of the CSE commission about a war that I was a mediator on, trying to find the solution; accounting the very difficult ways we were trying to piece together a cease fire, this was in the Caucasus.

My conclusion on these conflicts, I’ve said this hundreds of times when you’re talking about conflict in general, when you’re the mediator, you’re the only one who wants to find a solution, the only one; the other sides have vested interest in the conflict. If the conflict stops, they loose all of their influence, all of their power. Further down the line it’s even more the case; because the people who are actually the combatants, they have no other skills, so if the war stops, what are they going to do?

This is a big obstacle when you’re trying to find a solution. The Taliban, I think, are like that; for now two or three generations, these young men, especially young men have learned no skill except carrying that gun; they’ve grown old carrying guns, so what are they supposed to do?

This is one of the reasons why we thought naïveté, on a very small scale, okay, but nonetheless we thought the thing that makes more sense here is to offer basic skills training: how you put together mortar and brick, how you cut wood to build rafters in a house, how you install electrical wiring, painting, skills like that, because they literally didn’t know how to do that.

It wasn’t a matter of knowing how to read Shakespeare; they didn’t know how to do these elementary things. Because at the age of about 12, or even younger sometimes, they’re snatched up by some military unit and then after that, forget it; they learn how to recite the Koran and they learn how to work a Kalashnikov, and that’s it. So, what do you do with people like that? I don’t know, so…

Q: In these cases, you said the mediator is the only party wanting a solution, but in huge globalization, international conflict, the world scale that we’re on now- the media, are essentially the mediators, but most often, most media systems don’t want a solution.

A: No, because news sells newspapers or attracts the viewers on TV. That’s why the media doesn’t help a conflict, that’s for sure; they inflame it, because they want the sensations. They don’t say it, they probably don’t even believe it, but I think that’s a big element for sure.

Q: So now, I’m the media: I’m the University for Peace media. I’m structuring my article criticizing the media and then interviewing experts. But I see alternative media coming, I see peace journalism slowly making its way, but I still disagree with it; I disagree with Peace Journalism, as a Master of Media Peace and Conflict studies, I disagree. So, what advice…

A: I would make a difference between the responsible media. The New York Times, if you read an article by them, they’re pretty rational and other newspapers of that quality. But, then you have the other extreme.

One of the first things that comes up on the web, if you put my name in, for years has been an article which has the headline “It’s all about Oil.” The jest of the article is to say that the whole reason why the United States gets involved in a place like Afghanistan is in order to build a pipeline; this is crazy. First of all, you don’t make tons of money out of a pipeline.

If you know something about the energy business, you know that the only place where you can make a huge amount of money is if you own the resource, if you own the gas, because it’s free; so if it’s five dollars a barrel when it comes out of the ground, you just pocket five dollars a barrel. But, everything else is on a tight margin in order to be profitable; so a pipeline, which you build like a building or road or something, it’s not a money making thing, nobody makes fortunes on such things.

But the theory has been, you can find it now on the web; look for something that’s called “It’s All About Oil” and you’ll see this conspiracy theory that huge fortunes were going to be made and therefore UNOCAL was pushing the U.S. government to somehow occupy Afghanistan in order to be able to build a pipeline so we could all get rich! Twisted around in exactly the opposite way.

Q: This article, “It’s All About Oil,” is it an overall history or just attacking UNOCAL?

A: It was just on this one venture. My testimony has stood there for years. If you actually read the testimony; I’ve re-read it time and time again, to see what is in there that could be wrong or misstated or something; I think it’s a pretty rational thing. The idea of an oil pipeline down to the Pakistani coast fizzled long before the gas pipeline. The gas pipeline was a one time deal, it was not a big thing, for the reasons that I mentioned earlier.

The grander scheme, which George said was a “swash-buckling scheme”, was to gather all the oil from around central Asia to bring it down to the Pakistani coast. Well, that was a grandiose scheme. It was dropped early on because there were many different things going on.

For instance, the Chinese were building pipelines directly across into China, which made no sense economically, even the Chinese said that. But, they needed energy, so they didn’t care whether it was economically feasible or not, they just did it.

That scheme went by the way-side early on, because the contracts were going in different directions, so it didn’t make any sense. The gas thing was a very limited thing for very specific set circumstances, so it wasn’t really a grandiose thing.

I wish you luck, it’s a complicated field, but I do recommend Charlie Wilsons’ War. I first became interested in Afghanistan because of a man named Adolf Dubs, who strangely with a name like that, was our U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan 30 years ago or so.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, I was already in the Diplomatic Service, I had nothing to do with Afghanistan, but of course we were watching what was happening there. They took all of the American diplomats prisoner and took them to a hotel; the Soviets, specifically the KGB, and were questioning them, interrogating them, under the pretense that they were keeping them safe because there were military operations going on. At a certain point during their interrogation safe-keeping and so-forth, they shot Adolf Dubs, killed him.

Of course, I was in the Foreign Service at the time, he was a colleague. I didn’t know him personally, but I did know a couple people in the room next door who heard it.It was a blatant assassination, of which there were quite a number in the Cold War, but this one was very blatant. That is a starting point of what became Charlie Wilsons’ War.

It’s a fascinating story; there are a lot of dead bodies out there, in the sense of stories untold…

John J. Maresca

John J. Maresca has been Rector of the University for Peace (UPEACE), a worldwide, UN mandated graduate school based in Costa Rica, since 9 August 2007. Maresca previously founded and led the Business-Humanitarian Forum, a non-profit association based in Geneva which encourages private sector support for humanitarian work. From 1996-2000 he was Vice President for International Relations of Union Oil of California, a major world-wide energy company based in Los Angeles and Houston. Previously, he was President of the private successor to the research institute of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, in Prague. He was also a Guest Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

During his diplomatic career, Maresca served as an Ambassador under three Presidents. He was the United States representative to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the special mediator for conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Cyprus, and the chief American negotiator for Military Confidence and Security-Building Measures. He served as deputy head of the US delegation which negotiated the Helsinki Final Act of 1975, and as Chairman of the US delegation which negotiated the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe and the Joint Declaration of Twenty-Two States, the two documents that formally ended the Cold War and converted the OSCE to a post-Cold War role. After the break-up of the USSR, Maresca was named as the Special Envoy to open U.S. relations with the newly independent states from the former Soviet Union. Maresca was also Deputy Director of the Office of two Secretary Generals of NATO, Director of Western European Affairs in the State Department, and an Assistant Secretary of Defense.

Maresca has also been a Trustee of the American University of Paris, a member of the Board of the National Bureau of Asian Research and the International Research and Exchanges (IREX) organization, and a visiting lecturer at Georgetown, Stanford, and other major universities.

He has published numerous books, chapters and articles, and has lectured in over 30 countries. His book, To Helsinki is considered the definitive history of the negotiation of the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. He was born in Italy, grew up in the United States, and was educated at Yale University and the London School of Economics. He has lived in Switzerland for the last 12 years.