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Russia, Afghanistan and prospects for peace: Ambassador James Cunningham - transcript

In this episode of "Intelligence Matters," host Michael Morell speaks with James Cunningham, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Israel and the United Nations. Morell and Cunningham review the country's efforts at arriving at a peace deal with the Taliban and the Afghan government, and explore why a deal remains elusive. They also examine the obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, China's crackdown on Hong Kong, and Russia's interests in the Middle East. Cunningham offers views on the future of U.S. diplomacy. 

Highlights: 

  • Russian bounties to Taliban-linked fighters: "That's a serious qualitative change in their, in their tactics. Their goal now, it would seem, would be to build influence with Taliban; to get us out of there, discredited, dispirited, with cracks in our alliances and our international partnerships, and then work with the Taliban and others to try to stabilize the situation after we leave, because their overriding interest is still preventing the spread of Islamist extremism north from South Asia into Central Asia and into Russia."
  • Prospects of a Taliban peace deal: "Not to be unkind about it, because I think the effort deserves to be made, but this is not a peace deal. This is a deal which, under its best iteration, would lead to the opening of peace discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government. That still remains to be seen, but what it really is, it's a discussion about the circumstances under which the United States will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, which is the principal Taliban aim – and understandably so in the circumstances. So the question always was, for people like me, who believe that it's worthwhile continuing our engagement in Afghanistan as long as we have a willing Afghan partner to work with, the question is how and whether one can actually use the promise of the withdrawal of American troops as leverage to get the Taliban to agree to a serious discussion of how to stabilize the country and bring about a peace agreement."
  • State of U.S. diplomacy: "This administration has not made good use of the advantages and assets that the United States has traditionally enjoyed in our in our diplomatic instrument. It hasn't staffed it properly, it hasn't used to used it properly. We have a tremendous amount of advantages in our strength and vitality of our foreign service and our experience, the range of allies that we have in the in the international community and in our alliances and partnerships.And those are just not being, they have not been used properly."
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James Cunningham

Intelligence Matters: Ambassador James Cunningham

Producer: Olivia Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: Mr. Ambassador, Jim, it's an honor to have you on intelligence matters, welcome to the show.

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: Thanks for asking me.

MICHAEL MORELL:  So, as you know, I wanted to to talk with you primarily about the peace deal between the US and the Taliban and where you think Afghanistan is heading. But before I do that, I want to ask you a couple of questions about this Russia / Afghanistan issue. And then at the end, I want to ask you a couple of questions about a couple other parts of the world where you served, largely because your career is so fascinating. But the place to start, I think, on this Russian and Afghanistan thing is simply to ask you two questions. The first is, I'd love you to kind of put yourself back in the place of being the ambassador in Kabul. And you received intelligence every day. You received what the analysts back in Washington were writing and you received the raw intelligence that was being collected in the region.

And I'd love to know, if you saw raw intelligence that said or suggested that the Russians were offering bounties to militants to kill American soldiers, what would your reaction to that have been as the ambassador? And what what would you have done as the ambassador had you seen that raw intelligence?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: That's a very interesting perspective to look at this, given the way that discussion is unfolding here in the United States. Well, first, I would have been outraged. And furthermore, I've been outraged for some time because we've known that the Russians have been providing financial and other assistance to the Taliban for several years now. I don't think that was happening when I was in Afghanistan. I was there until the end of 2014. We knew even then that what the Russians really wanted out of Afghanistan was not to promote peace; they certainly didn't want to see the United States succeed in Afghanistan. What they wanted, what they were perfectly happy to see was an American-led alliance, not just NATO, but an international partnership, struggling and expending blood and treasure on trying to stabilize the country and hold back the very Islamists and violent extremism that Putin so fears. 

So in a way, our engagement there was serving as a buffer zone against the expression of Islamist violence northwards from Afghanistan in Central Asia and Russia. So from their point of view, that was a pretty good deal. And we were doing all of the fighting and all the suffering and all the spending of money. We, collectively – again, not just the United States. And they were they were watching this spectacle. We were serving their interest, but they were also hoping to see the United States and its allies weakened. So that was bad enough. 

Then a couple of years ago, as they became, I assume, more and more convinced that we were actually leaving, they shifted to trying to buy and develop their influence with the Taliban as a as a hedging maneuver. And then if if these reports are true, that they then shifted to actually encouraging the killing of American and British and maybe other coalition troops. That's a serious qualitative change in their in their tactics. Their goal now, it would seem, would be to build influence with Taliban; to get us out of there, discredited, dispirited, with cracks in our alliances and our international partnerships and then work with the Taliban and others to try to stabilize the situation after we leave, because their overriding interest is still preventing the spread of Islamist extremism north from South Asia into Central Asia and into Russia. 

So one of the first things I would have done was make sure that we went directly to Moscow. Find out what is going on, tell them, 'This is what we know is happening. We want you to knock it off. And if you don't, then there are going to be consequences and those consequences should be pretty severe.'

MICHAEL MORELL: So if you were serving as the Ambassador and there was a Deputies meeting or Principals meeting and you were on the screen from Kabul, you would have recommended a U.S. response in some way?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: Yes, I would have recommended a diplomatic response in the first case, and not publicly. Going directly to Moscow at a high level and saying, 'This is what we see and you've got to stop it.'

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Jim, your last assignment in the Foreign Service was as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. And I think you served in that job for two and a half years. But when you took over as ambassador -- you correct me if I'm wrong -- you had just served there as a deputy ambassador for the previous two years. So you were in country for quite a long time, almost four and a half years, is that right?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: I was there actually for three and a half years. I went there as the deputy to Ryan Crocker after I was ambassador to Israel before that.

Then they asked me to go to Afghanistan. I went to there as Ryan's deputy and then became ambassador. They asked me to stay on to be ambassador when he when he left. 

MICHAEL MORELL: So describe the situation in Afghanistan that you walked into when you first got there as the deputy ambassador. What was it like?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: Well, when I got there -- so this was the summer of 2011. The military surge had just peaked and there was supposed to be a corresponding civilian surge, which was struggling because that's not the kind of thing that civilian parts of the government do very well. But when I got there, there was what we thought was a longer-term strategy. The military was going to start drawing down to a lower level. But the pace rate of that withdrawal had not been decided. 

And when I got there, we still had civilians as well as the military throughout the whole country. And I had civilians under my under the embassy's purview in villages and cities throughout the country. So it was a very widespread presence and range of activities. So that really was the peak. 

One of the first things we decided after I got there was, with military already starting to draw down, it became clear to us that as that withdrawal took place, the civilians were going to have to start withdrawing, too, because the military provided the security for our people in the field. They lived and worked together. So one of the first things we did is say 'There's no point finishing the civilian surge; what we need to start doing is figuring out how to withdraw along with the military.' 

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Jim, when you when you first got there, do you think our objective was clear? And do you think our objective was achievable?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: When I got there, I thought the objective was clear. But then it became apparent, after a little while, maybe a year or so, after President Obama decided that we were going to withdraw on a timeline in a more precipitous way than I had thought. It became harder to understand how we were going to reconcile that kind of process with an ongoing effort to not just contain the Taliban, but to get them to a place where they would get to a negotiating table. 

And the fundamental problem was, once President Obama made clear that his desire was to get out of Afghanistan, the Taliban no longer had any reason to do anything except endure and wait for the American departure. So over the over the three and a half years that I was there, we went from a situation where we had originally planned a very long term and significant civilian presence throughout the country with some still meaningful, if lower level of military troops. We eventually got to a place where it was clear the civilian presence was going to be severely curtailed as the Obama administration tried to get as many troops out of Afghanistan as possible within his presidency.

So to the president's credit, he he kept recalibrating as we went through this process over the years. And he kept extending the timeline. But he maintained a timeline up until the very end of his administration when he decided that he would not continue a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, but would leave that question to his successor.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Jim, you were in Afghanistan for the what I guess were the first round of talks with the Taliban that Ambassador Holbrooke got started. Did those talks falter because of the timeline or because of other reasons? Why did they not go anywhere?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: It wasn't Ambassador Holbrooke. It was it was after Holbrooke died and Marc Grossman replaced him. So Marc and I got in – it may have started under Holbrooke, I don't know exactly when they developed those contacts. But in my in my time there, one of the reasons they asked me to go there is they needed to reconstitute the staff after Holbrooke died. And I had worked closely with Holbrooke at the U.N.

There were initial talks that were pretty loose and unfocused. And they really came apart after a very short time after I got there. When President Karzai reacted very badly to some news out of someplace -- I don't remember where -- but some news that we were, what he thought was, working on a separate deal with Taliban. And he objected very strongly to that. And in that context, we made a decision to break off that discussion, which then we tried to resume in a different form after a little while, and that different form is what led eventually to the establishment of the Taliban political office in Doha.

MICHAEL MORELL: So the peace deal that was just signed between between the United States and the Taliban, can you can you summarize that for our listeners? And why do you think these talks succeeded?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: Well, not to be unkind about it, because I think the effort deserves to be made, but this is not a peace deal. This is a deal which, under its best iteration, would lead to the opening of peace discussions between the Taliban and the Afghan government. That still remains to be seen, but what it really is, it's a discussion about the circumstances under which the United States will withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, which is the principal Taliban aim – and understandably so in the circumstances. So the question always was, for people like me, who believe that it's worthwhile continuing our engagement in Afghanistan as long as we have a willing Afghan partner to work with, the question is how and whether one can actually use the promise of the withdrawal of American troops as leverage to get the Taliban to agree to a serious discussion of how to stabilize the country and bring about a peace agreement. 

So as I said that question remains open. A number of people are working hard trying to do that. But I'm afraid the Taliban version of this from, from their public messaging and private things they've been telling the Afghans and others, their version of what's happening is they've defeated the United States. The United States is leaving. They will reestablish the Islamic Emirate. 

The terms of this, of how they how and if they will break with al-Qaida are not very precise or verifiable and there are still reports of links and ties between the Taliban and al-Qaida. And that was one of the one of the key elements of the agreement – they were supposed to break those ties and not allow al-Qaida to operate on Afghan territory. 

So there's real reason to doubt whether they have a genuine intention to actually enter into a meaningful discussion, rather than thinking that they're in the process of imposing terms after we leave. And that's why it's so difficult now. 

And I'm not saying any of this to be critical of Ambassador Khalilzad because he has a really, really difficult task in sorting all this out. But the unpredictability of President Trump and the continued reports that he would very much like to remove the American presence before the elections – although that might it might not even be physically possible. But that undermines the credibility of the attempt to get into any kind of serious peace negotiation. I mean, there's no negotiator can really negotiate against an artificial deadline, let alone against a deadline which could come up in a tweet in any moment. And that's a huge difficulty with what is happening now.

MICHAEL MORELL: So is that is the next step here supposed to be that the Taliban sitting down and negotiating with the Afghan government? Is that what's supposed to happen?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: What's supposed to happen is we, the United States, cut a deal with the Taliban to which the Afghan government was not a party, that the Afghan government would release 5,000 prisoners and that the Taliban would release a thousand Afghan prisoners. That was the first step. The fact that we didn't bother to tell the Afghan government that we were doing this made it a little difficult to move with alacrity towards implementing part of that deal, but that's now happening. And President Ghani has now made the decision that he will expedite the release of the remaining Taliban prisoners. 

What's supposed to happen after that is the beginning of the negotiations. And it looks like the first session, the prelude to negotiations, if not actual negotiations, will take place in Doha. And and we'll see if that happens.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Jim, I want to come back to this, these two questions about the Taliban and what they'd be willing to do. And I know everything's negotiable at the end of the day, and oftentimes negotiators and our diplomats achieve things that analysts don't think are possible. I certainly saw a history of that when I was at CIA.

But I'm wondering what you think about the Taliban's willingness at the end of the day to be a part of an Afghan government or be a political party in a democracy in Afghanistan, as opposed to being the government and a re-establishment of an autocracy, Sharia-law based dictatorship, essentially. What's what's your sense? Is there any hope that we can get them to be part of a government rather than the government?

MICHAEL MORELL: There is hope, but it will be very complicated to do that. In order to get, as I said earlier, their basic worldview is they've won, they're going to re-establish the emirate. It may be they're trying to convince a lot of their interlocutors, sophisticated members of the Taliban, trying to convince their interlocutors that this will be a kinder, gentler Islamic Emirate.

I think that's a pretty difficult thing to bet on, because their vision has been constant. They announced this years ago when I was still in Kabul. They explained that their vision was, they take control of the government and they will be inclusive and they will bring some outsiders into it. Presumably technocrats, but it is their show. That's not something that the Afghan people want. And it's not something that we want or we should want either.

So in order to get to a better kind of outcome, which is more stable and more enduring because it meets the aspirations of much more of the Afghan people, it will require a pretty sophisticated effort, not just by the United States, but by a lot of our partners in the region. 

And again, we dispose of many, many good partners in the region, to convince the Taliban that the future that they see and one for Afghanistan is neither achievable nor durable. The first part of that is to convince them that they can't achieve what they want by military means or that that is not a good way to achieve it. And there are some people who think that they've reached that conclusion, actually, at least some parts of the Taliban have reached that conclusion. Others have not. There may be a split in the Taliban eventually. 

But they also need to be convinced that their view of Afghanistan and what Afghanistan can be in the future needs to be shared by a consensus of people in the country. And that's the hard part, because that means it's not the emirate. It's not an autocracy. It's not a theocracy. It's some kind of democracy with maintenance of media freedoms and freedom of the press and human rights protections and rights for women and university education and all the stuff that -- the Internet, cell phones -- all the stuff that has been developed over the past 20 years in Afghanistan, which is all very unperfect. There's no doubt about that. 

But nonetheless, it's there. And you can't turn the clock back and just say, 'Well, you know, we're going to forget about all that.' So there are I think there are ways to persuade the Taliban in the context of a negotiation and in the context of looking forward to the future, that they need to adjust their view about what Afghanistan will be and what their role in it will be and that it's lot better than fighting. And that will be hard. But I don't think it's impossible.

MICHAEL MORELL: But we would need some leverage in order to get them to that perspective, I would imagine.

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: So one of their let one of the pieces of leverage is they don't want to be internationally isolated when they come out of this like they were before. That's that's a huge piece of leverage. Another piece of leverage is they're well aware that they're going to need international assistance and international partners. Well, where is that assistance and partnership going to come from? It's not going to come from Russia or China or Pakistan or Iran or any other direction than from the coalition that's now there providing the development and humanitarian assistance that Afghanistan receives. 

So that's also a huge bit of leverage. Persuading them to alter their view of how their future reality is going to be also includes persuading them that if they get this wrong, not only might the country plunge back into civil war, but all this, all the international assistance and recognition on which Afghanistan will depend will be unavailable to them. And that's huge leverage.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Jim, what about the Taliban, al-Qaida question, in your mind? They continue to deny that al-Qaida was responsible for 9/11. They continue to deny that al-Qaida is in the country. We know that's not true. Do you think they will follow through on their commitment not to allow any terrorist group to conduct an attack from their territory because they learned their lesson now? Or do you think that is an open question?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: I think it's an open question. It's not even clear to me that they could carry through on that commitment, even if they if they wanted to. It's not as if, you know, we're all sitting there nice and happy in our manicured neighborhoods and the Taliban has their house and yard over here and the Afghan government has it's over there. It's it's still a wild and open place. That's why ISIS is there.

ISIS is is still there, still active. We're hunting them and the Afghan government is hunting them. The Taliban have been fighting them when they cross, but they're still there and they're still operating. 

So, they may or may not exert themselves to try to prevent al-Qaida from reconstituting and and developing a planning and operational capability, that it would eventually be a threat to us again. It may be that they won't be all that interested in actually following up on this. As I said earlier, there's very little in the agreement that we have with them that would provide confidence that we could verify or or somehow have confidence that they were living up to their commitments, and as you said, correctly, there's very little question that al-Qaida is still present and and training, at least, in Afghanistan, even as we speak.

MICHAEL MORELL:  So, Mr. Ambassador, if Vice President Biden becomes the president, and if he were to ask you, 'What should I do with the hand I've been dealt on Afghanistan?' What would you tell him?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: Well, we've had a version of that conversation already when I was ambassador. He didn't like the answer.

But the circumstances have changed now. So Vice President Biden was very skeptical about having a large long-term presence in Afghanistan. And that's certainly a justifiable proposition to discuss and debate.

What I would say is he was focused on trying to narrow the mission down to counterterrorism, which is why we went there in the first place. Under the current circumstances, I would say that the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces will lead to a bad outcome one way or another for us and for Afghanistan.

What we should try to do is correct the mistakes of the Trump administration, which created massive uncertainty among our friends and partners as well as our adversaries. And I keep referring to our friends and partners because they have been there with us the whole time and they will be with us if we're clear about what we want. 

So my prescription would be correct the uncertainty created by the Trump administration that we have a commitment to trying to get to a good result. That we want to do so with at the lowest possible level of troops, with the narrowest range of missions consistent with preserving the capacity, the capabilities of the Afghan national security forces and redouble our diplomatic efforts. Focus our diplomatic efforts. Give us the diplomatic instruments to try to create the context to shape the diplomatic battlefield, to get to negotiations and then influence the negotiations. 

I actually supported the Trump administration at the outset when they adopted their South Asia strategy, which was crafted in large measure by General McMaster and others at the time – General Mattis, Secretary Mattis – because it did that. The original idea, which they persuaded the president to accept, was to put a premium on getting to a peace negotiation, but to do that by setting the military, the security part of it, in place in a way that would set the conditions for making clear to the Taliban they could not prevail by terrorism and and violence, but they needed to seek a negotiated outcome. 

That's still, in my view, the correct basic approach. It didn't work very well because almost immediately after adopting the strategy, the president made clear that he was looking for a way out. But I think that's still basically the right way to go about this.

MICHAEL MORELL: Jim, I want to ask you one more question about Afghanistan before we turn to a couple of other topics. And that is, you know, hindsight is 20/20, of course. And I'm just wondering if the US had a do-over in Afghanistan post 9/11, if you would have recommended that we had approached the problem differently than we did?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: Certainly in hindsight, I would have said – I was indirectly involved in Afghanistan after 9/11 because I was the acting representative to the U.N. on 9/11.

And so I was very involved in the diplomatic aftermath and but not in the nuts and bolts of what we were doing there.

But, yes, I mean, there are several I think major strategic mistakes that we made. One of them was probably, there was a considerable body of opinion that thought we should have included the Taliban somehow. In the post-expulsion after the Taliban was expelled from Afghanistan, we should included them somehow in a discussion about rebuilding the political system in the Bonn conference.

And we should have been aware earlier that there was going to be -- even if there wasn't at the moment -- that there was going to eventually to be long-term security problem if we didn't organize ourselves and the Afghan security forces correctly.

And there was a a long time when we weren't doing that in any serious way, in part because the administration decided that Iraq was more important, and then we were dealing with twin crises in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And then I think most importantly, as I said earlier, the – when I went to Afghanistan, what looked like the long-term commitment by the United States of declining, but to give it significant military forces and a civilian presence. The clarity that that was not the plan and that President Obama was seeking a way to withdraw military forces, I think, made it impossible to expect that the Taliban was going to do anything other than what they did. 

So there are lessons to be learned there as we go through as we go through other situations like this. None of them will be exactly the same. But certainly one of them is, if you want your adversary to do something, you need to convince him that he will pay a price or achieve something in a different way than if he just keeps doing the things that you don't want him to do.

MICHAEL MORELL: Yeah. Let's switch gears to two other places that you served.

So we mentioned that you were the ambassador to Israel. And I'm wondering – I think I know the answer to this. I'm wondering what your sense is of where we are on the peace process despite the plan that the administration outlined several months ago. And anticipating what your answer to that might be, I'm wondering if there's a way in your mind that we can somehow reinvigorate the peace process.

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: It's really hard to see how it could be, as you put it, 'reinvigorated.'

The net effect of what's happening right now is that there is no peace process and there won't be. The so-called Trump plan or the Kushner plan, whatever, it's an impossibility for the Palestinians.

Not that there was any prospect in the near term for a peace process anyway, given the massive amount of instability that there is now in Syria and Lebanon and in the Middle East in general and the disarray of the Palestinians themselves. 

But there had always been some hope that some way might be found back to a reasonable way of seeking a two-state solution. With what the Trump administration has done and what with what Prime Minister Netanyahu is about to do in terms of annexations of large dimensions of settlements that they decide to annex, I think his intention is clear that there's not going to be a two-state solution and Israel will make whatever decisions it has to make. They can do that pretty unilaterally, with very little conditions. 

And I think the end result of that is going to be once once Israel annexes significant amounts of territory in the Jordan Valley, they will have set the terms for a future of the region that from, I have long felt and I when I was ambassador to Israel, I argued to Prime Minister Netanyahu, would open up a very difficult perspective for the future of Israel, a country and a people that I greatly admire, I have to say. 

So I'm sad to say that I think the decisions that are about to be made are going to set the stage for a situation where Israel is going to create the conditions for a one-state solution. And then it will have to address what it is going to do with all the Arab Israelis and Palestinians that will be under its jurisdiction. And I think that's going to be a painful process.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Hong Kong, you lived and worked there. What's your view on what the Chinese are doing and how do you see it playing out?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: What the Chinese are doing is they're gutting, doing away with, the constraints that applied on their policies toward Hong Kong under the one country, two systems agreement that the British and the Chinese governments agreed to in 1984. So there's a document that codifies that agreement. It's an international agreement registered with the United Nations. And they've just abrogated it because the security law that they have passed in effect opens up the legal system in Hong Kong to being run under Chinese Communist Party standards, and we all know what Chinese Communist Party justice can look like when the party decides that it doesn't like what somebody is doing.

So I have a lot of friends there who are now going to be exposed to the threat of being arrested and sentenced to jail for speaking their mind about Hong Kong and its future. And I think it's a very sad day that I hope the Chinese government will come to regret, because I don't think that this may be even in their long term interests. But it's also going to be very unfortunate for Hong Kong, I think.

MICHAEL MORELL: Mr. Ambassador, you've been terrific with your time. I just want to ask you one more question. We have about a minute left. I wanted to ask you about the health of American diplomacy and the health of the Foreign Service -- And I know that those are two different things -- how do you think about those?

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: Well, This administration has not made good use of the advantages and assets that the United States has traditionally enjoyed in our in our diplomatic instrument. It hasn't staffed it properly, it hasn't used to used it properly. We have a tremendous amount of advantages in our strength and vitality of our foreign service and our experience, the range of allies that we have in the in the international community and in our alliances and partnerships.

And those are just not being, they have not been used properly. So it's frustrating for somebody like me -- very frustrating for somebody like me -- who's been active in many situations where we've achieved things that people thought couldn't be done through our example, through our values and through our diplomatic instruments. And hopefully that can be corrected in due course. 

The foreign service itself, the diplomatic corps, has been stressed. Many senior people have left or been pushed out. I won't go through any names. But in my world, it's very clear. And a lot of good people have stayed on, trying to do the best job that they can under sometimes difficult circumstances. And so that's a credit to them, because we need good diplomats and we need experts and we need people who understand the world and can try to figure out how best to influence the very many difficult events that are challenges that we face now, both in economy and with COVID and security in China and everything else.

So I my hope is that whoever wins the next election, that our Congress and our government will rediscover the crucial role that diplomacy plays in how much better off we are when we're able to use diplomacy effectively to respond to something like China's suppression of Hong Kong, through diplomatic methods that can be impactful. 

And that's not just things like sanctions. It's what we're really struggling with in Asia and with China will be a competition for values and for a vision of how Asia is organized and behaves and operates, in which Beijing has a very different vision of that than we do and many Asians do. That's where diplomacy has to be active. How do you how do you marshal this energy and this vision and turn it into things that have a practical impact on other actors around the world?

MICHAEL MORELL: Mr. Ambassador, thank you very much for taking the time to join us. It's been a fascinating discussion. Thank you.

JAMES CUNNINGHAM: Thank you. It's been it's been great.

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