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Pulling troops from Afghanistan has undermined Afghan confidence, says former ambassador

This week on Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Ronald Neumann, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria, and Bahrain, about national security interests in Afghanistan as the Trump administration announces a reduction of troops there. Neumann discusses potential repercussions, offers some advice to the incoming Biden administration and considers the possibility of a civil war in Afghanistan.

Listen to this episode on ART19

Highlights

  • Pulling U.S. troops has undermined Afghan confidence: "Right now, militarily, the basic situation is that the Afghan forces, with our support, are standing on the defensive, pushing back when they're hit hard. The Taliban are cautiously on the offensive, pulling back a little when they meet too much resistance. That means the strategic initiative on the battlefield right now is with the Taliban. We have undermined Afghan confidence by this extra pullout of troops that President Trump just did. So we're in a shaky position. At the same time, the Taliban has not broken with al-Qaida. Our most fundamental national interest in Afghanistan is not to have it again become the victory of al-Qaida and terrorist forces."
  • Advice to Biden administration: "The real strategic questions I think that the Biden administration has to deal with are, 'how do you support such a peace agreement or such a peace process? How do you posture yourself if you can't have that?' It's not at all clear that such a peace process will work. I think the two come together in a very unsatisfactory way, in a long-term maintenance policy. And people won't like that. They want a clear end. They want a clear exit route. I understand that. I think you have a choice between helping failure or giving yourself a chance at a long-term success."
  • Potential for civil war in Afghanistan: "If we don't get this right, we leave. NATO leaves because NATO can't stay without us. There are lots of people in Afghanistan, particularly the ethnic minorities, some of which are very large, which have experienced the terror and horror of living under the Taliban and are prepared to continue fighting to prevent that, whether or not the Afghan army holds together. So if we leave, particularly if we pull our money out, the Afghan army is likely to fragment because they can't afford it. But lots of pieces of that army will continue in a war. That is where you move from an insurgency against a government to something that I would call a civil war."

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"Intelligence Matters": Ronald Neumann

Producer: Paulina Smolinski

MICHAEL MORELL: Ambassador, this episode is part of a series of episodes that we're doing between the election and the inauguration on the key national security issues facing the country. We started a few weeks ago with H.R. McMaster, who gave us an overview of all the issues. Now we're taking a deep dive on each of them. Today, we are very lucky to have you with us to talk about Afghanistan: its past, its future, and what the U.S. policy should be. 

But before we do that, what I'd love to do is give my listeners a sense of who you are. How did you end up in the Foreign Service? I'm sure your father had a little role in that.

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: My father, when I was growing up, was a university professor. Later on, he became a very odd animal. He was a political appointee ambassador who served four presidents, three posts, and two parties. When I was growing up, we had various strange foreigners and others coming through the house when he was a university professor. Somehow that got me interested. I decided very young that I wanted to go in the foreign service. I hadn't had a particular focus. Then my father became ambassador to Afghanistan, which makes us one of only three fathers and sons to have run the same embassy in our diplomatic history.

MICHAEL MORELL: I know that John Adams and John Quincy Adams were one. What was the other one?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: I've discovered there was a family named Francis. I know absolutely nothing about them except that the father and son were both minister to the court of Austria, Hungary. 

MICHAEL MORELL: That's very cool. 

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: It has no political significance. You can do it about once every hundred years. In any event, I first went to Afghanistan in 1967. When my father was ambassador, I had a three-and-a-half-month break between graduate school and needing to report for the U.S. Army where I'd gotten carried away and volunteered.

My wife and I went to Afghanistan, which was peaceful in those days. We traveled all over the country and saw parts of Afghanistan that foreigners are not likely to see for a long time. We were out everywhere by Jeep, by horse, even into the Palmyras. 

MICHAEL MORELL: What was it like in those days?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: Primitive but peaceful. I went with a hunting party where we went all the way up to the northeast, where there's this funny little panhandle that goes out along what was then the Soviet border. We had a group of foreigners and we had hunting rifles, but they were packed away. Nobody bothered us. We traveled to the absolute end of the road by Jeep and then by horse, and up into the Palmyras to the high plateaus into that panhandled base camp at about thirteen thousand feet.  I traveled all over the country at that point, sometimes with my wife and sometimes alone. It was peaceful.

MICHAEL MORELL: How long were you in the army before the Foreign Service?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: Almost three years. I passed the Foreign Service test before I got carried away. I got a letter when I was in Vietnam asking if I could join. I put in my paperwork. They lost it. I put in my paperwork a second time. I had finished my Vietnam tour. It was on my 30 day leave when I got the notice that my release was approved and two weeks later, I was in Washington joining the Foreign Service.

MICHAEL MORELL: Give us give us a sense of your career path in the Foreign Service. 

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: It has been essentially a path that you can see on a fairly small map of the Middle East and South Asia. I had one excursion tour in West Africa, in Senegal. But after that, I served in my overseas tours in Iran, Yemen, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Then Algeria as ambassador, Bahrain as ambassador, and Iraq after the invasion for about a year and a half, and then Afghanistan.

MICHAEL MORELL: How long were you in Afghanistan?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: A little less than two years. When I wrote a memoir, I called it Three Embassies, Four Wars. I think that's really all you need to know from my short biography.

MICHAEL MORELL: I'm interested in your sense of how the Foreign Service has changed from when you started your career and when you ended it?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: Wow, I suppose in my part of the world, one difference is it's not quite as much fun. More people seem to be shooting at each other. One big difference that bothers me is that we're not getting out as much. There are a lot of reasons and pressures that keep people at their computer. But overall, it is the the fears of security and also the fears of having your career blown up if you survive a security incident. There's a big problem here. One of the problems is this so-called accountability review board, which is twenty five year old legislation. My day job at the American Academy of Diplomacy, we are working on a project to get Congress to change that law.

MICHAEL MORELL: It's really important to get out because that's how you end up knowing the country and knowing the people. 

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: The ultimate job of the foreign service is to persuade foreigners to do things that we want them to do. You only do that well if you understand where they're coming from and what their pressures are. You don't have to sympathize or agree with them. You have to understand them, so that you know how to present your own arguments, your own case. So you can tell Washington occasionally that an idea sounds bright, but it's not going to work.

MICHAEL MORELL: What you're describing in terms of the difference you saw; I saw a similar difference when I was sitting at CIA. As a very young analyst in 1980, I was reading these incredibly rich, deep pictures of the countries that I was following that were written by State Department officers on the ground. By the time I left the agency in 2013, those kind of cables from the State Department were few and far between.

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: That's sad because that's the world that I grew up in, and that I still believe in. Frankly, an ambassador who wants that kind of reporting can get it from his team, but he has to give them the backup, the support, and the top cover to get out and to see multiple contacts. 

MICHAEL MORELL: You're still involved today. You're running this organization called the American Academy of Diplomacy. What is its mission?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: It's a very small organization of former senior diplomats, mostly foreign service, but not all. We have some noncareer appointees, some people with backgrounds in intelligence, USAID. It's basically people who have worked at senior levels trying to get foreigners to do what we want as a matter of policy. Its mission is twofold. One is explaining what diplomacy is to Americans. We have two podcasts, one called American Diplomat, it's a lot of life stories, the other called The General and the Ambassador that focuses on how ambassadors and senior commanders have worked together. There's an awful lot in that area that people don't know. Our other area is pushing things at the Department and Congress that we think would improve the quality of our diplomacy.

MICHAEL MORELL: Let's jump to Afghanistan today. On February 29th, earlier this year, there was an agreement signed between the United States and the Taliban. What was in that agreement?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: Great starting place, because it's a very unbalanced agreement in a sense. First of all, it's really important that people understand it is not a peace agreement. It is a withdrawal agreement for the U.S. We committed to a very specific withdrawal calendar, part of which was to be very quick and then the rest of which was to come about by May of next year. The logic of the case was that if we put a firm withdrawal timetable in the agreement, the Taliban would agree to direct negotiations with the Afghan state and that was the only way we were going to get to such negotiations, which are the essential way of ending the war. That has not fully worked. 

There are a couple of things the Taliban have adhered to. They have, by and large, not attacked the foreigners, us and our NATO allies. They have mostly adhered to not attacking cities. They have not attacked so much in Kabul, but they are not really adhering to that. They've had major attacks on some other cities. There was an expectation, which is not in the agreement itself. It's not in the any public text that there would be a lowering of violence. The Taliban has gone in the other direction. They have picked up the pace.

America gave up a point that was a central point all the way from the attack against us in 9/11 until this agreement, where we had insisted that the Taliban had to break ties with al-Qaida. We gave that up. We modified it so it's an agreement that there won't be any extremist violence against us or our allies from Afghanistan.

It's a very vague, wishy washy kind of commitment. I guess it means that al-Qaida can have their R&R facilities in Afghanistan, but not their planning headquarters. In any event, the Taliban have not given up ties with al-Qaida.  That's been documented by the U.N. So you have had the start of negotiations as agreed in the document, although the Taliban do not recognize the Afghan government. So the negotiations are with a mixed group of political leaders.

However, the negotiations have started only in form. The Taliban have put forward new conditions to start and the argument since then has been about their starting conditions. As of yet, you do not have any actual peace negotiations going on, although we are ahead of schedule on our troop withdrawal.

MICHAEL MORELL: The negotiations say we will leave in a certain period of time if certain conditions are met. But it doesn't spell out those conditions, correct?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: The agreement itself doesn't even say anything about the conditions. Now, at the beginning when it was signed, former Secretary of Defense Esper and Secretary Pompeo were very outspoken about how this was conditions based. I don't know that anybody believes that any more. We didn't have much credibility on the idea of conditions based all the way back at the Obama administration when we talked about it. We didn't do it with our withdrawal from our big surge. Now the Taliban have continued to ratchet up violence. People like Ambassador Khalilzad have testified in public that they are not meeting all the conditions, and we have accelerated the withdrawal program. So whether conditions means anything to anybody is not clear.

MICHAEL MORELL: What's your take on this agreement?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: Their logic of starting on this basis is not necessarily bad. But when you look at this agreement and when you look at similar wars elsewhere, you get to a peace only when both sides believe they cannot win on the battlefield and they have to settle down and actually make an agreement.

I don't think that condition yet applies. The Taliban believes they're winning. The first thing to understand about this kind of negotiation is that it is not an alternative to violence. It's a parallel track.

The fighting is where you create the leverage to push the other side. So I expect the fighting will go up and down. Right now with a change of our administration, I expect the fighting to get much worse because I believe the Taliban will likely do everything they can to box in the Biden administration, to give them as little room for maneuver and choice as possible. I think the Biden administration is going to have to think about that a little faster than they're probably going to want to.

MICHAEL MORELL: If the Taliban's mindset is that they're winning. What's the mindset of the Afghan government, our allies, in this whole thing?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: The Afghan government has said that it wants a peace which preserves human rights, particularly women's rights, and which preserves as much of the constitutional structure of Afghanistan as possible, including elections. The Taliban is not interested in any of that at present. They want the Islamic Emirate back. The positions right now are frankly incompatible. But lots of peace agreements have started with incompatible positions.

MICHAEL MORELL: We talk all the time about the U.S. troop presence there, but not many people talk about the financial support that the U.S. government provides to the Afghan government. How important is that money to the Afghans? And was that part of the discussion at all between between the United States and the Taliban?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: It was not to my knowledge, remember, I was not in those talks. I'm not in the government anymore. But there were certainly, to the best of my knowledge, no specific figures. On the other hand, the Taliban have been clear that they would like America to remain involved. They understand that if they do come to power, they're going to have a busted country and we're the only ones with the resources to really help them. So there have been marginal discussions and understanding. As far as the current situation goes, our payment and the payment of other allies- remember we've got all the NATO countries and some others as well helping to pay for the Afghan army- that level of payment is key to maintaining the size of the army that is necessary to fight this insurgency in a very poor country.

MICHAEL MORELL: Looking forward where do you think we will be on January 20th? What will Joe Biden inherit in Afghanistan?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: He will inherit an ongoing war that is not going very well. Right now, militarily, the basic situation is that the Afghan forces, with our support, are standing on the defensive, pushing back when they're hit hard. 

The Taliban are cautiously on the offensive, pulling back a little when they meet too much resistance. That means the strategic initiative on the battlefield right now is with the Taliban. We have undermined Afghan confidence by this extra pullout of troops that President Trump just did. So we're in a shaky position. At the same time, the Taliban has not broken with al-Qaida. Our most fundamental national interest in Afghanistan is not to have it again become the victory of al-Qaida and terrorist forces. That is easier to prevent than it is to have a victory strategy. I think when Biden comes in, he's going to find that violence is up. He will have an enormous number of other issues that he needs to work on. Afghanistan is not going to be the first thing. But the Taliban will be trying to run the situation before h\e can catch up with it. If this was a pool game, they're trying to run the table before he gets to break.

The first decision that President Biden will have to make is whether he can make clear that he's not going to be run out of the game before he has time to think about it. I don't think anybody can reasonably expect that he's going to come in with his mind totally made up to every piece of the strategy. But I think he has a tremendous need to say something about no further troop withdrawals and no lessening of support until he has time for his own review. He needs to stabilize both the military situation and stabilize the political situation in Kabul by making it clear that he's not going to be run off until at least he has time to think about it and consult with his allies, which we've been pretty lackadaisical about. He needs to then make clear to everybody what his policy is. 

MICHAEL MORELL: In putting together a strategy, the first thing you need to do is be able to articulate what your national interests are in a particular place or issue. You mentioned one of them, which is counterterrorism. But are there other strategic interests when you look at Afghanistan? 

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: No, I think there are other interests. Then you have to get into complex discussions. How much are these worth? How much money? How much blood? First of all, you have regional stability. If Afghanistan collapses, I don't think you have a Taliban quick victory. You have a descent into civil war again, in which you will find all the outside powers drawn in and all of the local terrorist resistance organizations, whether it's Uzbekistan or Chinese or Tajik with bases in Afghanistan. You have a potential for rippling insecurity coming out of Afghanistan. At some point that's going to begin to touch things you don't want to be messing with. Although you could make an argument that maybe we don't care about anything. So you have instability. 

You have a long-term commitment the United States has made to the people of Afghanistan, to Afghan women, to the constitutional process. There's a real question, 'what is that worth?' It's not worth everything. But if you are going to get involved in the future anywhere and make similar commitments, then the question of whether your commitments are meaningful is also a national interest. It isn't the be all and end all. It isn't that you have to always put good money after bad if things don't work, but it is of interest.

MICHAEL MORELL: You mentioned the regional instability. For years, the flow of extremism went from Pakistan into Afghanistan. In the situation that you were describing, I was thinking about the flow of extremists going the other direction now and what that could potentially mean for Pakistani stability which we should care about because it is a nuclear armed state. How do you think about that?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: I think it's a serious problem. I'm not sure whether the Pakistanis agree. You do have the Pakistani Taliban which is at war with the Pakistani state, and they are now based in Afghanistan. You have the Islamic State, which is also not a friend to Pakistan, based there. So a real collapse does have the potential to make things in Pakistan worse.

It's not clear whether the Pakistanis fully agree with it. They don't seem to be supporting a Taliban victory. They seem to be content with a difficult situation. I don't know whether the Pakistanis believe they have the power to actually make an agreement. They certainly have a lot of power to keep things from happening. They have enormous power as a spoiler. But whether they think they have an option of a stable situation with the government they would consider friendly, that I don't know.

MICHAEL MORELL: We're shifting back towards big power competition with China and Russia. Does Afghanistan play any role in that competition?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: Yes, it has threat potential for both China and Russia. I think both know it. I don't think that's a threat potential that we have any ability to exploit. Secondly, as Russia plays the new great game and wants to be a large power, it has been using the Afghan situation to expand its prestige by hosting conferences. I don't think Russia has much ability to make peace with Afghanistan. It has some ability to be a spoiler.

MICHAEL MORELL: Where are you on this debate about whether the Taliban is serious when it says it will not allow extremist organizations to use Afghanistan as a launching point for attacks?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: I don't believe it. It might be true; the evidence is limited. But I think you have to ask, if the Taliban is really serious about that then why would it not be willing to even say in an agreement that it will break with al-Qaida? The Taliban would only go with this very vague language that it can walk around. Secondly, al-Qaida has a very tight link with the Haqqani movement. The Haqqani movement is part of the Taliban. So Taliban has some real problems.

One of the things you saw when the contents of Osama bin Laden's computers were being declassified to some extent. At one point there was a message from Osama bin Laden to somebody saying that he was nervous about the Taliban's position towards al-Qaida but 'go check with the Haqqani movement, because we've got good friends there and they'll give us a good read.'  That's an interesting illustration of how tight the al-Qaida and Haqqani movement relationship was, and as far as I know, still is. 

MICHAEL MORELL: What do you see as the strategic options going forward? Which one would you recommend to a President Biden?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: There is broad agreement that the best option would be a negotiated peace. We're trying that and we should continue to support that. The real strategic questions I think that the Biden administration has to deal with are, 'how do you support such a peace agreement or such a peace process? How do you posture yourself if you can't have that?' It's not at all clear that such a peace process will work. I think the two come together in a very unsatisfactory way, in a long-term maintenance policy. And people won't like that. They want a clear end. They want a clear exit route. I understand that.

I think you have a choice between helping failure or giving yourself a chance at a long-term success. On the one hand, the way you advance the peace process, paradoxically, is to support the war because the Taliban will only make peace if they don't think they have a choice of military victory. If we're really in a hurry to run and go, all we're doing is saying to them that they have no reason to make concessions. The second thing is that we can sustain Afghanistan now at what amounts to a low cost compared to the days of big war. We are losing a few people in Afghanistan, less than 20 a year, which is serious. Its loss of life. But it's fewer than we lose in noncombat training incidents. It costs us about 1% to 1.5 % of the defense budget. This is real money, but these are long term sustainable costs.

Frankly, unless you have a way of producing peace like a rabbit out of a hat, which we don't, then you need to understand that it is a steady as you go kind of policy where you look at what is the lowest number of troops and the lowest cost that has long term sustainability. That creates a situation that everybody else has to acknowledge and deal with instead of what you have now, which is a constant return to policy re-examination, troops that are pulled out with no strategic rationale, nobody in the world knowing what the hell you're going to do next, and the complete sense of insecurity.

MICHAEL MORELL: What happens if that doesn't work. For whatever reason, we can't convince the American people that strategy makes sense to them and they continue to want to bring troops home. What happens if we leave and there is this instability you talk about? What does Afghanistan look like if we don't get this right?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: If we don't get this right, we leave. NATO leaves because NATO can't stay without us. There are lots of people in Afghanistan, particularly the ethnic minorities, some of which are very large, which have experienced the terror and horror of living under the Taliban and are prepared to continue fighting to prevent that, whether or not the Afghan army holds together.

If we leave, particularly if we pull our money out, the Afghan army is likely to fragment because they can't afford it. But lots of pieces of that army will continue in a war. That is where you move from an insurgency against a government to something that I would call a civil war. A civil war will then pull in outside powers because they all have things to protect. Iran, Russia, and China, they will all find that the way to protect their borders from people like the Islamic State is to intervene and support groups in Afghanistan. That gives you a rolling civil war that will continue for an indefinite period of time.

That leaves lots of room for al-Qaida to broaden its presence for the Islamic State, ISIS, which is there to broaden its presence and for its physical strategic threat to the United States to grow because they are looking for vengeance. Secondly, you are going to have a sense that the Islamic warriors have defeated the second superpower. 'This is proof that God is really on their side.' And that much more confidence to go on for the next 50 years of war with both the Islamic State and al-Qaida.

MICHAEL MORELL: Our objectives in Afghanistan started pretty narrow and then they broadened. With 20/20 hindsight, was that the right thing to do? 

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: I think they got too broad, but it is a lot easier to make that criticism than it is to go backwards and say, 'what were your real choices?' I suppose we could have just said, 'OK, we kicked the Taliban out. Now we're going to let it go back to civil war. We're out of here.'

But realistically, I think you get into a position, 'OK, you busted it. You got to put something in place.' Therefore, you have a political negotiation. Once you say you want to keep the Taliban down, then you need an army. Then for an army, you need a state. And for a state, you need a budget and an economy. These things drive you into state building. 

I don't think we recognize the logic of this. You tend to do these things a step at a time. There's a tale for the future that it's really hard to have a limited goal once you overthrow a country and take over. In retrospect, sure, we got too broad in the democracy and too far drawn in. In any event, I think our bigger problem has not been the broadening of goals, but the constant shifting of goals. 

By my count, I see two major policies in the Bush administration, five in the Obama administration, at least two blending into an incoherent third one in the Trump administration. On average, we can't go more than about two years without wanting to change our mind and go someplace else and deal with really hard situations in the world where you have to bring a lot of other people on board and have a consistent direction. You really are going to screw it up if you insist on changing your mind every couple of years.

MICHAEL MORELL: Of all the things that you know about Afghanistan, if you could tell Joe Biden only one, what would it be?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: I wish I had the golden answer. I would like to tell him first that you can lose this, but you don't have to. You can sustain a presence. I know you'll hate it because a muddle through policy, but you can actually make that work. You don't have any major political pressure to get out and your choices are between that messy, undesirable world and just losing. That's a choice that you will probably fight and look every which way to see. Isn't there a better solution? Isn't there a plan B that gives me what I want? I think the answer is no, you haven't got a plan B. Those are your choices and it would be better not to lose.

MICHAEL MORELL: Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much for joining us. If you want to mention one more time those podcasts from your Academy?

AMBASSADOR RONALD NEUMANN: One is called The General and The Ambassador. It goes from Petraeus and Crocker right up to today. The other one is called American Diplomat. If you really want a full scale understanding of what diplomats really do or what the life is like, I commend that one. 

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