Ryan Crocker: The Taliban Will ‘Retake the Country’

Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan likens Trump "framework" deal to U.S. position on Vietnam at Paris peace talks.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Ryan Crocker, then the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, answers questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 8, 2008. (AFP/Getty Images)
Ryan Crocker, then the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, answers questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 8, 2008. (AFP/Getty Images)

Ryan Crocker is one of America’s most respected and honored diplomats, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In a foreign service career that spanned four decades, Crocker served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait, and Lebanon. As a political attache, he survived the 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut. In a conversation with Foreign Policy, Crocker discusses why he believes the Trump administration’s reported framework deal with the Taliban is a betrayal of the democratically elected Afghan government that Washington has spent nearly two decades propping up. He says it will leave the Taliban in control of Afghanistan—as the Islamist movement was when Osama bin Laden struck the United States in 2001.

Foreign Policy: What’s your reaction to the news that U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has reached a tentative framework agreement with the Taliban?

Ryan Crocker: I think the concerns are pretty clear. Thus far the Afghan government has not even been at the table. And that is of course a core Taliban condition, but it delegitimizes the government. The Taliban don’t recognize the government. They won’t deal with it. So whatever guarantees we think we’ve got, the outcome, I’m afraid, is going to be sadly different. If we withdraw as we’re talking about in an 18-month timeline, you will simply see the Taliban move in and retake the country.

FP: The New York Times report indicated that the United States is still requesting that the Afghan government be made party to the talks, and that issue was left hanging. Do you think the Trump administration will stand firm?

RC: That’s a great point. Zal Khalilzad I think is making a huge effort, but I would guess he’s very constrained by the current administration. I have no access to sensitive information from the administration. That’s a surmise on my part, but the president has made it pretty clear publicly he wants out. So I don’t think we’re going to see the time and focus on longer-term consequences. 

We’ve seen this before, at the Paris peace talks with Vietnam. But I think what makes this particularly grave is, for example, what’s going to happen to Afghan women? The women we encouraged to step forward, the ones that we made a major effort to get back into schools. What about them? And there is no assurance or guarantee that the Taliban would make that I would trust. Who’s going to enforce it?

FP: You are speaking as if the Taliban will certainly take over the Afghan government. That’s your assumption?

RC: It is, sooner or later. Negotiation 101: Do not negotiate from a position of weakness. As we’ve seen in the last year-plus, the Taliban are gaining ground. They are not the juggernaut that some accounts seem to make of them, but they control more and more and the government less and less. So to think they would now stop and say, OK, we’ll respect the constitution and seek legal changes, that isn’t going to happen.

FP: Huge amounts of U.S. resources have gone into training and sustaining the Afghan forces. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani seems a pretty substantive figure. What’s your read on why they have done so poorly?

RC: Armies are hard things to create and then have function. The Afghans certainly know how to fight, but the armed forces as currently constituted, this is all pretty new to them. What’s the doctrine? Where are the enablers? How are command decisions made? I think they’re kind of making this all up as they go along. But also it’s important to note, with the horrendous losses they’ve endured, they keep on fighting. I am reminded of the period between the Soviet withdrawal in ’89 and the collapse of the army in ’92. They fought on without Soviet enablers or advisors for three years. They only came apart when the pay stopped.

FP: If there were a complete U.S. withdrawal, with some kind of U.S. support remaining, is it possible to imagine they could hold off the Taliban to some degree?

RC: They might. I think, though, that the dynamic is different in one important respect from the early ’90s. That was a period where you had like seven different forces contending for power. In this case you’ve got one, which is the Taliban. And after [nearly] 18 years in the wilderness, they are not kinder, gentler, or less dedicated. Again, we may get an assurance about not providing safe haven for groups like al Qaeda. But given the fact that the Taliban made the choice in 2001 that they would face defeat on the battlefield rather than give up al Qaeda, as the proposition was put to them, does anybody really think the Taliban will be different this time?

FP: What effect did President Donald Trump’s plan to halve U.S. forces in Afghanistan, which was reported in the last couple of months, have on the current talks?

RC: I think the entire dynamic suggests that we’re done in Afghanistan, we’re going to get out. Let’s negotiate something that at least looks like a political agreement rather than an all-out surrender. But clearly when the president talks about halving the force, you just can’t do those things arbitrarily. Which half? What does the half that remains do? Is it going just be purely caught up in protecting itself? And what about our NATO allies who have really stayed the course with us in Afghanistan? Rather like Syria, I think the president has signaled the end state, and we’re just negotiating the terms now.  

FP: There were a lot of discussions about trying to engage the Taliban during your time there as ambassador. Former U.S. Special Representative Richard Holbrooke, until the day he died, was trying to come to a diplomatic solution. Talk a little about that.

RC: When I was out there in 2011 to 2012, I made it very clear that while I was prepared to talk to the Taliban as well as others, I would only do so at the request of the Afghan government. And we did have a couple of meetings. I made this absolutely clear, for what seemed to me for obvious reasons. If the government is not in the room, you’re making the case for the Taliban, because you’re delegitimizing the government.

FP: At the time, that stance was met with a wall of resistance by the Taliban?

RC: No, We had a couple of conversations. They didn’t go anywhere.

FP: Was it over this issue?

RC: The gulfs I think were too wide to bridge. And then, bear in mind, I’m the guy in country. So anybody I talked to, that person would already have had conversations with the Afghan government, so there would be a room to get into. The guys in Quetta [the then-Taliban leadership] weren’t going to be coming over for a pop-up meeting with me. Again, what drove me in all of that was I’m not talking to anybody without the permission of the Afghan government.

FP: Was that also the position of the Obama administration?

RC: At the time I was there, it was.

FP: You mentioned the Paris peace talks and the end of the Vietnam War. How closely does these negotiations resemble those?  

RC: I wouldn’t push it too far … but the one element that does seem to me relevant is that, with all the excruciatingly painful conversations on the shape of the table and so forth, it was clear what we were doing. We wanted to get out. We just wanted it framed in a way that it didn’t look like we were standing on the deck of the Missouri signing articles of surrender. That we couldn’t accept.

The North Vietnamese and Viet Cong were used to playing the long game, and we were, at the end of the day, fine with that. So we got a couple of years when it [Vietnam] moved from the headlines into the wanted ads. So when the fall of Saigon took place, as traumatic and graphic as it was, the story was already moved to the back pages.

FP: Do the Taliban have a long game? I recall after that the initial U.S. invasion in late 2001, which was devastating, they did lie low for some time.

RC: The whole region, the greater Middle East, learned a long time ago that indigenous forces cannot stand up to the forces of the West. You’re not going to keep them out. Put up some kind of token resistance, suffer as few losses as possible, go to ground, and be ready to fight the next day, month, year, or decade. We’ve seen that over and over. In Iraq, we were at mission accomplished before our opponents had even organized for conflict. Take it back as far as you want. Napoleon in Egypt, 1798. Our adversaries have learned they can wait it out. We did it in Iraq. We did it in Lebanon. I was there for part of it. The Marines get blown up in 1983. We announce that the mission continues, but because of changes in the battlefield situation, instead of being on shore, the Marines are going to be on ships, in early ’84. And then one day, when nobody was paying attention, those ships steamed away. … Again, our adversaries have learned very well.

FP: After the Taliban were driven from the cities in late 2001 by the U.S. invasion, there seemed to be some possibility of peace. Did the George W. Bush administration’s turn toward Iraq in 2002 hurt those chances?

RC: That’s a question that the folks who were on the ground in Afghanistan could answer better than I. But you’ve got to bear in mind the Rumsfeld doctrine was already operating in Afghanistan. The Rumsfeld doctrine was to use minimum force necessary to bring down an enemy regime. And once that’s done, so are we. We’re not going to get into nation-building. The British two star present in Kabul at that time, he and I had an idea for a slightly augmented force, maybe two battalions. … That ran right into a stone wall. So I’m not sure at all if it was the question that we were distracted by Iraq. I think it was an economy of force operation in the minds of the administration clearly from the beginning.

FP: How much a factor is the role of Pakistan—are they still providing key support to the Taliban?

RC: They certainly did. I was ambassador there from ’04 to ’07, and we had all these fruitless exchanges about the military in Pakistan moving against the Taliban. Which they were not going to do. The Pakistani narrative on that is that, look, we’ve seen this movie before. You pulled out on us after the Soviet defeat. You sanctioned us on the way out because of our nuclear program. You left us with a horrendous civil war on our western border. So if you actually think, you Americans, we’re going to turn on the Taliban—make of them an existential enemy—just to watch you get on your planes again, you’re crazy. That’s their policy.

FP: And you don’t think that’s changed?

RC: Negative.

FP: Seventeen years in Afghanistan. A lot of American blood and treasure. There seems to be a consensus in Washington that the United States has to figure out some mode of winding down. What would be your prescription for a successful negotiation?

RC: Frankly I don’t think you can have successful negotiations under these conditions. Where I would start would be by saying, this is far as it goes. From today forward you either sit down with the Afghan government or there will be no further talks. I think that’s doable, in theory, but I don’t think the administration is inclined in that way at all. Once again, military interventions have grave consequences. You need to think about those before you intervene, but once you have intervened, you need to consider very carefully the consequences of withdrawal—which can be as grave or graver than those of the original intervention. That’s what we saw in Iraq.

FP: Khalilzad has a lot of experience there. Do you think he is the person who will draw that line?

RC: He can’t. That will be a matter, again, for the administration. I don’t think that will happen. I don’t think he will be given that latitude. When you have Ashraf Ghani now saying he’s deeply concerned this whole thing is a rush, well, he’s right.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh