Afghanistan: the cost of staying vs the cost of leaving
A Presentation and Discussion on 24 May 2019 with
Ambassador Ronald Neumann, (ret.)
President, American Academy of Diplomacy
“Afghanistan is a very complicated place…It’s a little like malaria, not good for you, but it gets in the blood.”
Ambassador Ronald Neumann began his very enlightening NSF talk about the goings on (then and now) in Afghanistan with a biographical highlight. Ron is one of only two father-son duos to hold the same Ambassadorial post. Ron’s father (Ambassador Robert Neumann) was Ambassador to Afghanistan during the Johnson and Nixon Administrations (1967-1973). During that time, Ron and his wife Elaine first went to the country for a three-month period before he joined the infantry to fight in Vietnam. They toured the country by Jeep and horseback learning about a very complicated country that has existed at the crossroads of history for centuries.
Ron eventually returned as Ambassador to a very different Afghanistan during the George W. Bush Administration (2005-2007). When he served as Ambassador the U.S. was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and in retaliation we had gone to war in Afghanistan in 2001. Ron summarized the situation when he arrived by quoting an Afghan friend who, when asked to explain Afghanistan in one to two words responded, One word -“good.” Two words – “not good.”
“Our problem is not that we can’t get this right in 18 years. Our problem is that we can do any one thing for three years.”
To set the context for today’s policies and military actions in Afghanistan, Ron began by clarifying some commonly held misconceptions. The first is the far too commonly held belief that the U.S. “has been trying the same thing for 18 years and it hasn’t worked.” According to Ron’s best analysis, the U.S. has most assuredly not been trying the same thing for 18 years. On the contrary we have had (by his count) nine separate policies about Afghanistan during this period, two under the Bush Administration, five under Obama, and two under Trump. Militarily, the U.S. attempted to build a fully functional Afghan Army under multiple U.S. Presidents in a mostly-illiterate country with a long-history of tribal conflict and corruption. The big effort, however, lasted only three years during the Obama administration. a During this time, we poured money and equipment into the country, but under resourced our own efforts in terms of time and U.S. personnel (for all but one year we did not staff even 50% of the training teams we defined as needed). This has resulted in a costly failure. By 2014, after training the Afghan Army to rely on U.S. air strikes when needed, we declared that we are “no longer at war with the Taliban,” and hence, no longer providing air strikes to support Afghan Army operations. That left the Afghan Army vulnerable unless, of course, U.S. assets were being targeted. The war continued, while we lost ground.
Ron explained that Trump Administration inherited a tenuous and unresolved situation not the same, but not dissimilar to the situation facing President Obama when he assumed the office. Both Presidents share a common desire to leave Afghanistan without leaving the country in a mess. But how? In 2017, the Trump Administration announced it would remove the timelines for leaving, and in an attempt to accelerate the training mission for training the Afghan Army, increased the number of U.S. trainers. At home, Trump also moved the training mission from the U.S. military reserves back into the career Army. Increased training was accompanied by new efforts at economic development, but also by reductions in civilian aid. Concurrently, Trump officials put pressure on Pakistan and others in the region to take a more proactive role in resolving the situation which has had limited success. It has also restarted direct peace talks with the Taliban.
“I was much more enthusiastic when I visited in 2017 than when I returned in 2018.”
So where are we now? In Ron’s opinion, the military aspects of the multiple U.S. strategies is going OK, but not as well as it could be. And a growing insurgency is once again taking hold in the country. In his analysis, the current situation is “a declining stalemate” meaning that while ground is being lost we won’t lose the war so land as US air power is engaged. We are not losing the war, but we are also not winning the peace. The Afghan Army continues to lose ground to Taliban control causing the security environment to deteriorate. At the same time the Afghan Army is expanding its capabilities and building the capacity to fight back. Economically, there has been some success in instituting tax collection and other revenue generation by the Afghan government, but unemployment continues to rise and foreign investments continue to fall. The potential for development remains in a country rich in natural resources, including oil, gas, semi-precious stones, and rare earth minerals, while foreign development grows more elusive.
“It is an unnatural state…but it is reality.”
Unfortunately, the regional piece of the Afghan strategy is “not working well.” Both Iran and Russia have expanded their relations with the Taliban in an attempt to counter the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. So today, in addition to the challenges of working with the Afghan Government, we must also be vigilant about the remnants of Al-Qaeda, a rebuilt Taliban, and the newly constituted (or reconstituted) Islamic State, plus a handful of other extremist groups. This leaves Afghanistan in the precarious position of being a base for instability in the region, which promotes more unilateral actions by Russia, Iran and others in the region.
Iran, driven by the practical reality of U.S. waning interest and engagement in the region, is shoring up its relationship with the Taliban out of fear that the Islamic State will bleed its ideology and insurgency over the border. This unnatural alliance between Shia Iran and Sunni Taliban follows in the vein of “the enemy of my enemy is my ally…for now.” Iran’s purely transactional support for the Taliban is designed to counter the ‘worser evil’, the Islamic State. Similarly, the Russians fear the Islamic State. Russia also subscribes to conspiratorial beliefs about the U.S., which have proven to be an even bigger driver. Russia now appears to be motivated by the bizarre theory that the U.S. is supporting the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan to get back at Russia for its engagement in Syria. Pakistan, as with others in the region, lacks confidence that the U.S. will follow thru on its commitment to leave Afghanistan in a better place than when we arrived in 2001. These rational an irrational sentiments prevents us from having a regional dialogue about the Afghan “project” and promotes others to act on their own to strike deals that benefit their national interests without U.S. involvement.
“Always remember even paranoids have real enemies.”
Pakistan’s other long-standing paranoia centers about India. Keeping India in check, at times, outweighs their concerns about Taliban influence in Pakistan. That said Pakistan has been helpful in getting the Taliban to the negotiating table even if they opt to forgo trying to influence the substance of these discussions. Amb Khalilzad, former Ambassador to Afghanistan 2003-2005, was appointed as U.S. Special Envoy for Afghanistan Reconciliation in September 2018 to lead negotiations with the Taliban (and separately) with the Afghan Government. With the proviso that he is not directly engaged in these negotiations, Ron provided the following insight into what is going on in the peace talks. The discussions are focused on two topics: first, the timeline for the U.S. to exit Afghanistan and second, the scope and objective of ongoing counterterrorism activities. These talks are not intended to broker a peace agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan Government. Any meaningful peace in the country will only be realized when the two parties choose to talk to each other and not just bilaterally with the United States.
“If you want to negotiate successfully in an insurgency, you have to negotiate and fight at the same time.”
Predicting the outcome of the U.S.-Taliban and U.S-Afghan talks is anyone’s guess, especially in light of the upcoming Afghan election in September 2019. Ashraf Ghani, the current President of Afghanistan, is characterized by many as a micro-manager with a temper problem. His desire to play to both his electorate and the U.S. during the talks makes progress even more elusive. Even without a stated timeline for the U.S. to be out of Afghanistan, it is evident that President Trump would like to have the war over before the U.S. 2020 election. Negotiating our graceful exit from Afghanistan does not mean we are not still in the fight. The messy reality of conflicts involving insurgents is that the fighting continues until peace negotiations are concluded not just initiated. This makes ceasefires mute. This foreshadows an increase, not decrease, in warzone conflicts as the talks proceed. Ron summarized this dilemma citing the quote from the former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, “I have to negotiate as if there is no terrorism and fight terrorism as if there are no negotiations.”
Ron concluded by anticipating the oft asked question, “can the U.S. sustain staying in Afghanistan.” At present the U.S. is spending about $15 billion annually to support both the Afghan Army and the U.S. presence there. This is a considerable amount, but still only 2% of the total U.S. defense budget. With U.S. casualties declining to significantly below the numbers lost in training accidents the practical reality is that the U.S. can sustain staying in Afghanistan even if politically that outcome is untenable. Leaving us better informed about the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan and suitably uncertain about the path forward, Ron closed by reminding us that anything can happen when, “we live under the tweet of Damocles.”
Ron graciously fielded as many questions as possible during the discussion period. The first few harkened back to history. Asked had we failed to heed the first rule of warfare “never invade Afghanistan” and are we still fighting Charlie Wilson’s war, Ron reminded us that Afghanistan is often called “the graveyard of history.” That said, when we first went there in 2001 the Afghans were bitterly unhappy with the Taliban for seizing control over the government and society. Contrary to popular opinion in the U.S., they were more welcoming of the us than we expected. Unfortunately, we were not prepared to take advantage of those sentiments and so lost the opportunity to influence the political landscape before the Taliban regained strength and reinvigorated an insurgency. In contrast to the current U.S.-Afghan War, Charlie Wilson’s War was all about countering the Soviet Union and not about supporting the sociocultural and political well-being of Afghanistan.
So why do we stay and what will happen if we leave? Although we successfully got Bin Laden, Ron reminded us that the U.S. has still not met our other stated objective to “destroy Al-Queada.” This was evidenced by a recently discovered AQ training base in the country. Ron believes strongly that if we walk out precipitously now, Afghanistan will likely return to civil war. Even the Taliban does not want this to have happen. A return to civil war will likely open the country back up to being a secure base for insurgency and terrorist operations by a rebuilt AQ, a fractured Taliban, and other current and emerging extremist groups. Everyone in the region, especially China, Russia and Iran worry about the potential consequence of our imminent departure.
“When an elephant dances, don’t expect ballet”
To the question about the structure of the Taliban and the wisdom of trying to play ISIS and the Taliban off against each other, Ron explained that the Taliban is an organization with a hierarchy and a command structure that is able to negotiate agreements. However, fissures within the Taliban also make implementation of any negotiated agreement problematic. As long as the Taliban believes they can negotiate us “out of the country” they remain less concerned about internal divisions among their own groups. Ron also reminded us that the U.S. has not mastered ballet sufficiently to dance between the two major insurgency factions (the Taliban and ISIS) without getting stomped on.
As for the role of the warlords in Afghanistan, Ron observed that, at present, they are everywhere – serving in government, campaigning as political candidates, and organizing the opposition. Some are also still running drug and smuggling organizations and a few are in jail. Warlords straddle all roles (good and bad) and it is risky to try to pigeon-hole them as all good, bad, stabilizing, ore de-stabilizing. That said, as a general rule their power increases when security in the country decreases. As the security situation deteriorates now, warlord operations and influence are on the rise.
“There is no silver bullet alternative to poppy.”
Explaining population rise over the last 50 years, from 10 million in the late 1960s to nearly 30 million today, Ron soberly stated that there are few viable alternatives to the opium trade to fuel the economic growth needed to support this burgeoning population. The current Afghan economy is not good, but also not off a cliff. Foreign investment had been up after the initial stages of the war, but 18 years later it is turning back down in light of the declining security environment. Although, Afghanistan has significant agriculture potential, it lacks basic infrastructure (water, roads, manufacturing) to make growing food crops economically more attractive than poppies. When security in the country improves poppy cultivation declines. This means there may still be hope to reduce Afghanistan’s dependency on the opium trade in the future if the country remains stable and people feel more secure.
On the topic of U.S. aid and its role in winning hearts and minds, Ron responded that the U.S. has had far more opportunities to determine what did NOT work in Afghanistan than what worked. He believes our early focus on building infrastructure (roads, water systems, power systems) worked well, but our subsequent change in focus to “institutional-building” was less effective and sustainable. Without basic infrastructure, institutions struggle to function. That said, Ron remains hopeful that the U.S. may actually have learned this lesson and not, as Washington is want to do, observed the situation without learning. We at NSF should take solace in his guarded optimism.
“If you want to affect their policy you need to create certitude in their minds about ours.”
Ron succinctly addressed the issue of the other elephants dancing on the periphery of the Afghan project (Pakistan, Russia and China) with the quote above. Right now, the big three don’t really know what our policy is (nor, does it appear, do we) and when they don’t know they guess. And when they guess, they guess worst-case. Clarifying our position would go a long way to minimizing worst-case guessing by others who don’t trust us already.
In conclusion, Ron reflected on his time in country as Ambassador. He was empowered to make positive contributions while there, but is uncertain about the future. Our inability over 18 years to stick to a policy long enough to see it implemented has cost us blood, treasure and credibility. Ambassadors can do a lot to make a policy effective, but they can’t make a bad policy good. We are grateful to Ron for his contributions to making Afghanistan a better place for Afghans and Americans and for sharing his insight about this very complex situation with us.
For more information about Ambassador Ron Neumann and the American Academy of Diplomacy see: https://www.academyofdiplomacy.org
For links to two very informative podcasts about American Diplomacy, “The General and the Ambassador” and “American Diplomat” go to: https://www.academyofdiplomacy.org/program/podcasts/
For link to Amb Neumann’s latest book (on Amazon):
Ronald E. Neumann, President, American Academy of Diplomacy, was formerly Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Middle East, Ronald E. Neumann served three times as Ambassador; to Algeria, Bahrain and finally to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from July 2005 to April 2007. A book on his time in Afghanistan is The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan. Before Afghanistan, Mr. Neumann served in Baghdad from February 2004 with the Coalition Provisional Authority and then as Embassy Baghdad’s principal liaison with the Multinational Command. In earlier positions he was Director of the Office for Iran and Iraq, Deputy Chief of Mission in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and in Sanaa in Yemen, and Principal Officer in Tabriz, Iran. After earning a B.A. in history and an M.A. in political science from the University of California at Riverside he served as an infantry officer in Vietnam (’69-70). His autobiography Three Embassies, Four Wars; a personal memoir, is available on Amazon. He is married to the former M. Elaine Grimm. They have two children.