Robin Raphel, a former US diplomat now under a counter intelligence investigation, has spent much of her professional life dealing with Pakistan and defending it against criticism as she doled out billions in aid to the “frenemy”.
She said she “understood” Pakistan. It can be argued that her understanding of India was in inverse proportion -- the more she understood Pakistan, the more she pushed its agenda and the less she understood India.
Even some State Department officials agree that her capacity to poison the waters of diplomacy on India-Pakistan issues was remarkable. She relentlessly pushed Kashmir to the forefront, perhaps imagining she would be the one to find a solution by arm-twisting India.
After retirement she worked as Pakistan’s lobbyist and then rejoined the State Department as an adviser in the key office of the Special Representative on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Conflict of interest doesn’t even begin to describe this sequence especially in light of the law that requires a two-year cooling-off period. In Raphel’s case, the State Department never clarified how she met the requirements of the law.
By Raphel’s own telling, she first landed in Peshawar in 1975 in a beat-up Chevrolet Vega travelling through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan. Her fondness for Pakistan only grew with time and in her most recent avatar as adviser she controlled $7.5 billion in non-military US aid to Pakistan.
As the news of the Federal Bureau of Investigation probe percolated through Washington, her detractors and supporters have both come out to denounce or defend her.
The exact nature of the investigation is still unknown except that most cases such cases involve allegations of spying for foreign governments. Her supporters are surprised by the revulsion she still evokes in India. They say the criticism is unfair and the reaction unwarranted since she could still come out of it unblemished.
An old Washington hand said Raphel probably got “sloppy” in handling classified documents and came under the scanner. Although not a friend of Raphel but someone who has worked with her, he said she might be part of a larger probe in which the FBI might be pressuring her for information to nail other people.
“I can’t believe she would sell information or be ideologically motivated to pass information along. The only thing that makes sense is sloppiness,” he said.
Raphel is 67 and retired from the US foreign service in 2005 after 30 years but came back as an adviser in 2009 when Richard Holbrooke took over as SRAP. In between she was a lobbyist for Cassidy and Associates representing Pakistan.
The Legal Times blog, which tracked disclosures from Cassidy and Associates, reported in November 2009 that Raphel was crafting Pakistan’s lobbying strategy less than a week before her new position was announced as adviser to the SRAP.
She reportedly attended more than 40 meetings, including many at the State Department and on Capitol Hill, on Pakistan’s behalf in the two months before she left the lobbying firm. A filing submitted to the Justice Department showed that the lobbying firm was e-mailing her even after she assumed her new position.
Her detractors are reportedly spread across the US military and the CIA, according to a well-informed source. Apparently, in the intelligence circles, Raphel was known as ‘the bird’ and intensely disliked. The US military lost thousands of soldiers in the Afghanistan war in which Pakistan’s role has been more than dubious, a country she habitually defended.
People like Raphel were meant to get Pakistan to deliver the Taliban for the so-called ‘peace talks’ but they failed miserably while the Pentagon commanders faced defeat and have to explain the 2,350 dead soldiers. When she talked up Pakistan at think tanks in Washington, they were appalled.
“Her ice queen act didn’t go down well with soldiers who were getting shot at, blown up and dying having no idea why any of it was happening,” the source commented. The anti-Pakistan feeling is intense among US veterans of the Afghan war.
Meanwhile, Pakistan has collected $20 billion in US military and civilian aid since 2002, $7.5 billion of which under the Kerry-Lugar was overseen by Raphel. As with all large aid packages, there is patronage and lack of transparency.
During a conference last year at the Middle East Institute in Washington where Raphel was the keynote speaker, Pakistan insiders openly referred to the Kerry-Lugar money as bribe or “the price of doing business in Pakistan.”
As the administrator of USAID, Raphel wielded immense clout. She handed out cash to Pakistanis claiming they were partners in the war against terrorism while the US military and CIA operatives were fighting and dying, often precisely because of Pakistan’s games.
The FBI investigation could be the result of intersection of the many patterns Raphel wove in her career.
-- Seema Sirohi is a senior journalist based in Washington, DC