Did the White House Give the Taliban $43 Million?

According to commentators of all ideological stripes -- from the Nation's Christopher Hitchens on the left to the New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg in the center to the Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly on the right -- the US gave $43 million to Afghanistan's Taliban government as a reward for its efforts to stamp out opium-poppy cultivation. That would have been a shockingly inappropriate gift to a government that had been sanctioned by the United Nations for its refusal to hand over international terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Would have been, that is, if it had really happened. It didn't.

The truth is contained in the transcript of a briefing given by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who on May 17 announced the $43 million grant; it was aimed at alleviating a famine that threatened the lives of four million Afghans. Far from handing the money over to the Taliban, Powell went out of his way to criticize them, and to explain the steps the United States was taking to keep the money out of their hands.

"We distribute our assistance in Afghanistan through international agencies of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations," Powell said. "We provide our relief to the people of Afghanistan, not to Afghanistan's ruling factions. Our aid bypasses the Taliban, who have done little to alleviate the suffering of the Afghan people, and indeed have done much to exacerbate it."

Powell did say one favorable thing about the Taliban: "We will continue to look for ways to provide more assistance for Afghans, including those farmers who have felt the impact of the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that we welcome." The bottom line, though, was -- or should have been -- easy enough to comprehend: humanitarian aid for Afghans, yes; money for the Taliban, no. (On Tuesday, the Taliban reversed themselves, announcing that opium production will resume if the US attacks.)

Most media reports of Powell's announcement got it right. Within days, though, the commentators began making hash of it. Among the first was Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, who on May 22 criticized the Bush administration for its "recent gift of $43 million to the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, the most virulent anti-American violators of human rights in the world today." Scheer did not respond to my requests for comment, so I can't be sure where he got his information. But his Web site credits a New York Times article of May 18 that, though accurate, glosses over the matter of who precisely would receive the $43 million. Scheer apparently drew the wrong conclusion.

A computer search for "Taliban" and "$43 million" since September 11 shows that Scheer's error has become accepted wisdom. News organizations from Salon to the Denver Post have all repeated it as proof that the US has been coddling terrorists. Jay Severin, a talk-show host on WTKK Radio in Boston, has been eviscerating the Bush White House. Asked where he got his information, Severin cited a column by the New York Post's Michelle Malkin.

Now, I'll concede that Malkin got it more right than most. She noted that the money was intended to relieve Afghan suffering, but went on to say, "It's money the Taliban don't have to spend feeding their people, buying them medicine or building them houses," thus freeing them to buy "guns and bombs ... missiles and aircraft" and "pilot training and living expenses for bin Laden's followers in the US." But that's a specious argument, given that the Taliban have never shown the slightest inclination to feed, clothe, or otherwise care for the people of Afghanistan.

Eli Lake, who covers the State Department for UPI and who wrote an accurate report about the $43 million grant last May, calls the notion that the White House gave the money to the Taliban as a reward for their anti-drug efforts "just absurd." He notes that one of the Bush administration's first actions upon taking office was to shut down the Taliban's mission in New York, in compliance with UN sanctions.

Lake recalls a conversation he had with Andrew Natsios, the White House's point man for foreign aid, around the time that the $43 million grant was announced. "He explained that the Bush administration, as a matter of policy, did not want to link needed aid to political considerations," Lake says -- whether it be in Afghanistan or in other rogue states with starving, suffering populations, such as Sudan and North Korea.

It's too bad, but not surprising, that some elements of the media couldn't get it right. After all, no good deed, as they say, goes unpunished.

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