The Cable

Crocker: No end in sight for internal conflict in Afghanistan

Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker is expected to be named Thursday as the new U.S. envoy in Afghanistan, replacing outgoing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Crocker has said the internal conflict in Afghanistan will probably go on indefinitely, but nevertheless advocated for "strategic patience" by the United States. In a long article Crocker wrote for ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker is expected to be named Thursday as the new U.S. envoy in Afghanistan, replacing outgoing Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. Crocker has said the internal conflict in Afghanistan will probably go on indefinitely, but nevertheless advocated for "strategic patience" by the United States.

In a long article Crocker wrote for Newsweek in September 2009, Crocker talked about his previous stint as the top U.S. diplomat in Kabul in 2002, immediately following the fall of the Taliban. Then Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called him and barked, "Crocker, we need you in Afghanistan now." Crocker embarked upon the task of reopening the U.S. embassy in Kabul that had been shuttered in 1989 and reestablishing cooperation with a range of actors, including the Iranians.

Now, nine years later, the United States is still mired in the Afghan war, having committed more troops than ever before, and with no solution in sight. Crocker will be tasked with repairing strained relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and furthering a political process that will include some reconciliation talks with members of the Taliban.

In Iraq, Crocker oversaw the U.S. military surge, which was accompanied by an about-face from Iraqi insurgent groups toward cooperation with the United States, often referred to as the "Sunni awakening." But when Crocker was leaving Iraq, he warned against a similarly dramatic improvement in conditions in Afghanistan.

"Relentless internal conflict is not endemic in Iraq. In Afghanistan it is," he wrote. "For most Afghans an effective central government isn’t even a distant memory. Tribal identity is everything. And Al Qaeda and the Taliban have learned from the mistakes of the insurgencies in Iraq. They have not forced the people to turn against them. They know the hills and valleys of the political terrain as well as they do the killing fields of Helmand province or the caves of Tora Bora. They have learned strategic patience."

The lesson Crocker took away from his time in Baghdad was that, although there is no way for the United States to impose a solution on a country, leaving before the problem is solved will only further damage the U.S. image in the region and therefore damage U.S. interests.

"Americans tend to want to identify a problem, fix it, and then move on. Sometimes this works. Often it does not," Croker wrote. "Of course, imposing ourselves on hostile or chaotic societies is no solution either. The perceived arrogance and ignorance of overbearing powers can create new narratives of humiliation that will feed calls for vengeance centuries from now. What’s needed in dealing with this world is a combination of understanding, persistence, and strategic patience to a degree that Americans, traditionally, have found hard to muster."

So what does that mean for Crocker’s view on the road forward for Afghanistan? While his essay doesn’t place much emphasis on negotiating with the Taliban, which was the late Richard Holbrooke‘s prescription for ending the conflict, he does counsel that leaving Afghanistan before the job is done would be unwise.

"No one, least of all me, has an easy fix to propose. But over the last eight years I was intimately involved with our country’s effort to manage its relationship with the Middle East and South Asia. I know that success only comes from a solid, sustained commitment of resources and attention," Crocker wrote.

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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