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. 

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
In this June 2011 file photo, Ryan Crocker testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. Crocker will be stepping down as US ambassador to Afghanistan this summer – a year earlier than planned.

This July, when Ryan Crocker steps down as US ambassador to Afghanistan – a year earlier than planned, because of health reasons – the baton of American foreign policy will be passed along to a new envoy charged with what must easily be the most difficult diplomatic job in the foreign service.

Mr. Crocker’s successor will have to manage both the personal and institutional relationships between two countries who will slowly part ways, as the US military begins to withdraw 90,000 troops from bases in Afghanistan, and as the Afghan government rises up to take on the responsibilities of its own security, development, and governance.

Crocker’s past year as ambassador was not an easy one. Afghan soldiers have begun killing their US, French, and British trainers. NATO airstrikes on civilians, NATO burnings of Qurans, and the deliberate burning of Qurans by a Florida preacher have all strained the US-Afghan relationship, leading to protests on Afghan streets, and heated meetings between governments.

Crocker brought to the table a familiarity with Muslim culture. He speaks Arabic and served as ambassador in Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as previous stints as ambassador to Pakistan and to Afghanistan, immediately after the US embassy was reopened in early 2002. Crocker's most important calling card was helping to pacify Iraq, but this success carries its own challenges. Like many members of the US diplomatic corps, Crocker's approach to US diplomacy in Afghanistan is marked by one single event – the September 11 attacks – and an obsession with security.  

Time for a shift?

Crocker's departure might be a good time for a shift in the US's diplomatic approach, away from a single-minded focus on 9/11. 

One thing about the decade after September 11 is that it has clarified for an entire generation of US diplomats what their job is about. Before 9/11, there was a lot of talk about America’s soft power abroad, about the myriad ways in which American culture and economic power was unifying men and nations. Destruction of the Twin Towers changed all that. Post 9/11, US diplomats pared down their job description to three essential functions, to report, influence, and defend: that is, to report on events in foreign lands, to influence foreign leaders to make decisions in line with US interests, and to defend US interests (rhetorically at least) abroad.

Traumatic events have a way of shaping a diplomat's world view. In the lead-up to Britain's 1956 intervention in the Suez Canal, which Egypt had nationalized, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden admitted that he was prompted to take firm action by the haunting memory of Europe's failed diplomacy in the leadup to World War I, and its weak response to Adolf Hitler's aggressions in the 1930s. 

"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."

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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