Soon after the Taliban’s fall, the State Department sent one of its most intrepid diplomats, Ryan Crocker, to reopen the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
He had already served as ambassador to Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria; he went on to serve in Pakistan and in Iraq during the “surge.” He then retired and was enjoying a deanship at Texas A&M University. But President Barack Obama asked him to return to Kabul a year ago, and Crocker thought he could not refuse.
This month, the 63-year-old Crocker will retire again, this time for health reasons, leaving Kabul in a crucial period of transition as the United States prepares to withdraw most of its troops by the end of 2014. I spoke to him about what he has achieved and Afghanistan’s future.
“There is every chance” that some U.S. troops will remain as advisers after 2014, he told me. He stressed that continued U.S. economic and military aid will be essential to keep Afghanistan stable after our troop drawdown. He also said there will not be “some kind of grand bargain with (Taliban leader) Mullah Omar” to stop the Afghan fighting, but that the Afghan government can win over individual Taliban leaders.
But first, the ambassador wanted to talk about the invaluable work that U.S. civilians have done on the war front.
Crocker presided over a surge of U.S. civilian personnel aimed at helping Afghan officials deliver better governance. He bristles at claims (mine included) that diplomats and aid workers are cut off from their Afghan counterparts or have failed to make a difference.
“When I first got here in January 2002,” Crocker says, “9 percent of Afghans had access to health care. There were 20,000 mobile phones. Now there are 16 million mobile subscribers, and more than 60 percent of Afghans live within an hour’s walk of health care.
“The number of students is up to 8 million in a decade. We increased life expectancy by a dec- ade in the last nine years. This is not nothing.”
Of course, many observers question whether economically pinched Western governments will continue aiding a corrupt Afghan government after 2014. Crocker warns what would happen after an aid cutoff: “Afghanistan collapsed after the Soviet withdrawal (in 1989) when the money stopped. No one wants to see history repeat itself. If we have to ante up a little more than intended, it is still pretty cheap insurance.”
The ambassador had just returned from Tokyo, where an international donors conference pledged $16 billion for Afghan economic development over the next four years. “Read the Tokyo document,” Crocker advised. It requires the Afghan government to reduce corruption before receiving all of the money. He insists that “there is a chance for improvement on corruption,” but it’s a long-term project.
Crocker also believes it is essential for NATO countries to continue financing Afghanistan’s security forces. Will those forces hold together after U.S. troops leave? They will fight, Crocker says, “as long as they feel they are fighting for something and as long as they are getting paid.”
One of Crocker’s major achievements was a strategic partnership agreement that opens the door for a limited number of U.S. forces after 2014 — details to be negotiated. “I think there is every chance that post-2014 we will continue to have a presence here,” Crocker says, “certainly to advise and assist.”
He thinks the Afghans will agree because they “know they face a real threat” from Taliban forces harbored by Pakistan. “We can’t assume that situation will change,” he added. He also stressed the need to resume a “high-level strategic dialogue” with Pakistan.
Crocker is skeptical about the prospects for a broad peace agreement with the Taliban, despite U.S. efforts to engage them over the past year. He doubts that the Pakistan-based Haqqani faction of the Taliban, which is fighting U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan, will ever reconcile.
He is more hopeful about getting “some significant number of (other) Taliban leaders willing to reconcile,” as well as getting foot soldiers to change sides.
Crocker stressed the importance of a recent encounter at a peace forum in Kyoto, Japan, between a high-ranking Taliban and a senior adviser to Karzai. He says the Taliban will eventually have to bargain with Kabul, not with the Americans.
“We haven’t talked to the Taliban in months,” he noted. “It has to be an Afghan deal.”
But Crocker won’t be around to help facilitate any deal. He is heading back to Washington, and then to Texas and academia. Unless he gets another desperate White House call for help.
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5 NATO troops killed in Afghanistan
BY RAHIM FAIEZ
KABUL, Afghanistan -- A person wearing an Afghan national security force uniform turned his weapon Sunday against civilian contractors with the U.S.-led military coalition, killing three.
In other incidents, five NATO service members were killed in roadside bombings over the past two days.
NATO said the attack on the civilian coalition workers occurred in western Afghanistan but disclosed few other details.
The gunman was killed during the incident, which is still being investigated. No further information about the civilians who died was released.
Afghan security forces or militants dressed in their uniforms have been killing a rising number of coalition forces, but they have not been specifically targeting contractors working for the coalition. So far this year, 26 foreign troops have been killed in this type of attacks.
In other violence, a spokesman for the governor of eastern Wardak province said insurgents had kidnapped five Afghan men working a base jointly operated by Afghan and NATO forces and killed them. Spokesman Shahidullah Shahid said their bodies were discovered early Sunday.
Also Sunday, Afghan officials reported that four civilians died when hundreds of shells and rockets were fired from neighboring Pakistan.
The artillery shells hit homes along frontier areas from which insurgents have in the past staged cross-border attacks.
There is little or no Afghan or NATO military presence in the area and large swaths of the region are controlled by insurgent groups. The information could not be independently verified because the area is largely off-limits to reporters.
The Afghan government has not openly blamed the Pakistani military for the artillery barrage, which reportedly hit districts in the eastern provinces of Nuristan and Kunar. Both are considered insurgent hotbeds, and militants allied with both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban regularly cross the mountainous border in both directions.
President Hamid Karzai discussed artillery fire coming from Pakistan at a weekly meeting of his national security council, a statement said. It added that Karzai ordered an in-depth investigation into the attacks.
The cross-border attacks were discussed in Kabul last week during an official visit by Pakistan's new Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Cameron, Ashraf and Karzai jointly called for a common stand against insurgents operating in the lawless border areas. Ashraf complained at a news conference about attacks against Pakistan originating in Kunar.
Kabul's Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai said, "The rocket attacks in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan are not acceptable to us, and we are strongly condemning these attacks. We believe that the continuation of such rocket attacks will have a negative impact on the friendly relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan."
All five of the NATO service members were killed in roadside bomb attacks - one Saturday in the east, and on Sunday, two in the east and two in the south. NATO provided no further details on the incidents or the nationalities of the troops.
The deaths bring the number of foreign forces killed in July to 32, and a total of 247 so far this year.
NATO also said that it killed a number of insurgents with an airstrike in the Mohammad Agha district of eastern Logar province. It did not provide further details.
Fighting in eastern Afghanistan has been raging since spring as NATO tries to clear the area of insurgents.