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With Crocker's exit, a chance for a new approach to Afghanistan

Ambassador Ryan Crocker announced he is stepping down as the US ambassador to Afghanistan. 

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"We are all marked to some extent by the stamp of our generation, mine is that of the assassination in Sarajevo and all that flowed from it," Eden wrote. "It is impossible to read the record now and not feel that we had a responsibility for always being a lap behind.... Always a lap behind, a fatal lap."

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But having a World War II mindset didn't prevent Eden and his French and Israeli allies from making a colossal error. The British-French intervention, which aimed to keep the canal open for oil shipments, under British and French ownership, ended in a ceasefire, with Egypt's President Gamel Abdel Nasser still in charge. And global suspicion against Britain and France mounted.

A 9/11 mindset in Afghanistan

In his swearing-in ceremony in Kabul on July 25, 2011, Crocker recognized that he would be taking over at a crucial time for Afghanistan, a time to ensure that another 9/11 could never happen again.

“We are at a time of transition in Afghanistan.  It is a time for us to step back and for the Afghans to step forward, as they are doing,” Ambassador Crocker said then. “Frankly, we left the wrong way in the early 1990’s, and we all know the history of those decisions:  the civil war, the rise of the Taliban, sanctuary for Al Qaida, and 9/11. So how we proceed as partners in support of Afghanistan is critical.” 

The early days following 9/11 were not pretty ones for American foreign policy. As a reporter in Kabul, I watched the US embassy fill up with seasoned Afghan hands in 2002. These men and women were driven by a commitment to developing Afghanistan, based on their experiences in the 1960s and '70s as Peace Corps workers, engineers, and agronomists with USAID.

Then as the Iraq war approached, I watched this older generation get replaced by a fresh-scrubbed generation of first-assignment true-believers, who brought along copies of Ahmed Rashid’s “Taliban,” but otherwise, precious little knowledge of Central Asia with them. And I watched the key functions of diplomacy shoved aside, as the Bush administration put the Defense Department in charge of driving US foreign policy.

Crucial mistakes were made at that time – a preference for military solutions over diplomacy, for unilateralism over patient consensus-building, for quick-fix construction projects over long-term development – mistakes the US continues to pay for in the distrust of its allies and the disappointment of the Afghan people.

Under the Obama administration, more effort has been made to build consensus among allies, but there is still the smell of cordite in the air when foreign policy decisions are made. Dreamy-eyed college kids hoping to spread the gospel of US-style democracy and free-markets have now either become converted to real-politik, or they have become experts in counter-terrorism at Washington think tanks.

The State Department is back in charge of foreign policy, but it is a State Department with rock-hard abs and high-resolution satellite imagery, and an obsession with security that gives them few experiences of meeting ordinary Afghans without the presence of a few armed men in camouflage. How diplomats can report, influence, and defend US interests in these conditions – and gain enough knowledge about Afghanistan to tell the difference between truth and self-serving lies – is beyond me.

Crocker’s successor, whomever he or she is, will have that very task. 

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