U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army base in Logar Province, Afghanistan, August 7, 2018. (Omar Sobhani / Reuters)

A talk with former ambassador Ryan Crocker about America’s longest war

Ryan Crocker is one of the outstanding diplomats of our time. He was a constant in the Middle East for about 40 years. He served as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan. George W. Bush hung the Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck. Today, Crocker is a diplomat-in-residence at Princeton University.

I talked with him on Thursday, September 12. Our principal subject: Afghanistan. Quite possibly, the United States will withdraw in the near future, and President Trump invited the Taliban for talks at Camp David, until rescinding the invitation at the last minute.

Below is the bulk of our conversation.

Nordlinger: Recently, I was writing about the Afghan War — its current state. And someone said, “Don’t call it a ‘war,’ Jay. It’s something else. It’s more like what we do in Germany and South Korea.” I don’t know what Webster’s would say, or an international-relations professor would say — but the Afghan War looks like a war to me, still. How about to you?

Crocker: It looks like a war. It smells like a war. It sounds like a war. It’s war.

Nordlinger: Personally, I was horrified at the idea of the Taliban at Camp David. That did not come to pass. But I was horrified at the idea. Then I thought, “Well, Jay, Arafat was at Camp David, after all. Maybe you’re being too prissy, too pure.” Nonetheless, I found the whole idea revolting — the Taliban at Camp David. You’re a professional. What did you think?

Crocker: “Revolting” is a good verb. I was similarly revolted. There is a huge difference between the PLO and Arafat and the Taliban today. Arafat had to meet our conditions up front and it took him several years to finally step to the microphone and spit it out: that the PLO was out of the terrorism-and-violence business, and that they recognized Israel’s right to exist, without qualifications. We had rightly refused to even consider sitting down with the PLO until they made those commitments.

With the Taliban — we’re not even asking for a ceasefire. The administration was prepared to sit down on the 18th anniversary of 9/11 with people who had not only killed Americans in the past — they are still doing it. The president said he called off the talks because of the loss of one of our soldiers. But we have had other losses since the negotiations began.

Anyway, one could say that the president did the right thing, just by saying, “These talks are off,” and I hope they stay off for a good long time.

Nordlinger: I was talking with a former Trump-administration official. I said I was worried about a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, because terrorists might regroup and attack us again. We’re not there on a lark. We’re not there for the sake of the Afghans, although their betterment is a side benefit. We’re there for our own security. The former official said, “Well, as the president says, terrorists can plan an attack from a house in Yemen. They can do it anywhere. They don’t need Afghanistan.” I wonder what you have to say to that.

Crocker: Several points. I think there’s a difference between al-Qaeda finding some little corner of Yemen where things might be quiet enough that they don’t have to switch beds every night, and having a country controlled by a government that embraces you — which is what Afghanistan was under Taliban rule.

We need to remember — as the Taliban blithely offers assurances on no havens for terrorists and so forth — that the Taliban chose exile — defeat and exile — over giving up al-Qaeda. We gave them that choice after 9/11: Hand over al-Qaeda and we’ll leave you alone. They chose the wilderness. That tells you a great deal about the degree of attachment between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. So it would be utterly irresponsible of us to entertain for a minute the notion that the Taliban would actually live up to any pledge they might make at the table.

They’ll say anything now because they know that if we go, we’re not coming back.

They also know that when we caved into their demand that the Afghan government not be present at the talks — because it’s a “stooge government,” as they put it — what we were talking about was our withdrawal. We were acknowledging our defeat, if you will. Of course, for those of us who remember, that takes you back to the Paris talks on Vietnam.

So, this is about our security, and the longstanding relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But there’s something else here. I would say that Afghanistan has been one of those occasions when our interests and our values really coincide. The security side is paramount. But we’ve done things in Afghanistan that are truly worthy of some consideration.

I opened the embassy in Kabul after the fall of the Taliban — a few months after 9/11. Afghanistan was a country that had maybe 900,000 kids in school. None of them were girls — zero. Today, you got about 9 million kids in school, and over a third of them are girls. We’ve worked very hard to give females in Afghanistan the opportunity to be educated, to serve in parliament, to serve in the military, to work in business, and so on. Implicit in all this is: You women step forward, we Americans have your back.

What do you think is going to happen to those women if we walk out and the Taliban walks back in? The Taliban hasn’t gotten any kinder or gentler during their years in exile. Women are almost certain to get it in the neck.

We leave, the Taliban comes back — we’ve seen this movie before. As an American, as someone who was involved in getting educational opportunities for girls and women, right from the beginning — I think that’s a betrayal of our values.

Nordlinger: Ambassador, what you say reminds me of Laila Haidari. [She is an Afghan woman who has opened up a restaurant in Kabul and runs drug-rehabilitation programs for her country’s many addicted. She is one of the most astounding and inspiring stories in Afghanistan.] I interviewed her a few months ago. She stressed one thing, over and over: If the Taliban come back, people like me are finished. I think she meant, there would be no more public roles for women.

Crocker: To put it as starkly as she did. Certainly finished in any public role, and . . .

Nordlinger: . . . and maybe even finished period.

Crocker: Yes. Laila Haidari really did step up to it all, and was not afraid to be public, and to set an example for others. For us to walk out on them is going to leave some blood on our hands that we’re going to have trouble ever washing off.

Nordlinger: When I talk to people about the Afghan War, they often say “18 years.” It’s been 18 years. I often say that myself. Eighteen years is a long time.

Crocker: It is a long time. But you’ve got to look deeper than just the calendar. When I left Afghanistan as the American ambassador in 2012, we had around 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. Today, that number is 14,000 and things are rocking along. Again, kids are going to school in unprecedented numbers. We are still taking casualties, and every one is one loss too many, but we are nowhere near the level we were at when I was ambassador in 2011 and 2012.

We’ve got like one tenth of the number of troops, and yet the country is holding together.

A great deal is being made over how much land the Taliban holds. But consider some things. The Taliban does not hold a single provincial capital. Not one. In the past, they’ve managed to occupy a capital for a couple of days, and they’ve always been beaten back. So, what are they holding? Open desert? That really doesn’t count. Also, what they hold by night, they may not hold by day.

The fight is being carried out by the Afghans now, with real determination and some horrific losses, but they stay in the field, and one reason for that is, we’re there too. Not on the frontlines but as advisers. We’ve got their backs.

So, to say, “Well, it’s been 18 years, that’s forever, we’re not getting it done, let’s just go home,” completely ignores not only the jeopardy we would put our own national security in but also the positive changes on the ground.

Nordlinger: In recent years, I have found it difficult to talk to people about deterrence. Just generalizing, I think that the idea of deterrence, the logic of deterrence, has been weakened in people’s minds. They say, “Why should we defend little countries like the Baltics?” The answer, of course, is that you want to prevent wider aggression. You want to deter an aggressor, or would-be aggressor, from acting in the first place. Do you know what I mean? Do you have the same frustration?

Crocker: Deterrence is critical in Europe, which is why people there, particularly in the East, have been so nervous about this administration and NATO, and the whole issue of American leadership generally. . . .

In the Middle East, I do not speak so much of deterrence as of direct American involvement. The Middle East is strategically important to us. We need to be there in whatever form and numbers are best calculated to protect our interests.

Over the years, the impression has grown that the Americans will come, the Americans will kick butts around the block a few times, and then the Americans will get tired of it all and the Americans will go home.

Look at what happened in the wake of the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan. For the decade of the 1980s, we were very, very directly engaged, not with deployed forces, but through the training and arming of Afghans in Pakistan. They carried the war back to the Soviets. It worked. The Soviet Union lost, we won, and then we…

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