America’s Afghanistan Withdrawal: The Road to Ending an “Endless War” with former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann

Ronald E. Neumann - The American Academy of Diplomacy

This week, A’ndre and Ryan speak with former Ronald Neumann, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Algeria, and Bahrain about the recently announced U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, scheduled to take place by September 11th, 2021. Ambassador Neumann provides a contextual background on Afghanistan pre-2001, focusing on the repercussions of the Soviet Invasion in the 1980s, the U.S. aid to the Mujahideen, and the linkages between the Mujahideen and Al Qaeda. We then dig into the Taliban — providing a brief overview of their governing style, their power in the country,  their actual beliefs, and their relationship to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda during, before, and after the 9/11 attacks. The second half of the interview sees Ambassador Neumann criticizing the Biden Administration’s decision for a non-conditional withdrawal, citing the relinquishment of a range of secondary goals, the likely subjugation of women, children, and other U.S.-favored Afghans, and a spate of violence that has already struck parts of the country. Ambassador Neumann expresses pessimism about the future of Afghanistan post-withdrawal, and voices concern for Afghans who had strongly believed in U.S.-based values.

Ambassador Neumann currently serves as the President of the American Academy of Diplomacy, and you can find out more about his work there, here.

On Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion:

“It was a peaceful country, very very underdeveloped with just a beginning getting into development.”

On the Soviet invasion:

“The Soviet invasion followed an Afghan coup, actually two coups, the second of which brought a communist, Afghan domestic communist, government to power.”

“The Soviet invasion, as is now pretty clear from things that have been declassified after the collapse of the Soviet Union, invaded much more on the basis of ‘You can’t let a communist government be overthrown’ than because they had any enormous desire to occupy Afghanistan. But they plunged in, killed the then president who was a communist and put a different communist in place.”

“But by our light footprint approach, we did nothing to stabilize the country. And so we allowed a lot of score settling to go on as new people took power, they settle scores that push people back into war. But you know, 2020 hindsight is easy.”

On the U.S. arming of the Mujahideen, and Al Qaeda:

“The U.S. policy was fairly simple: kill communists. It was not a very sophisticated policy.”

“Al Qaeda itself was a formation in opposition to foreign troops coming into Saudi Arabia to oppose Saddam Hussein’s taking of Kuwait.”

“Al Qaeda itself is a leader development.”

 On the Taliban’s changing government style:

“The Taliban had a pretty simple kind of back-to-basic Islam, very few educated technocrats or leaders. But they had this kind of simple faith. And this concept of stabilizing the country that was very popular to people who’d already been at war for 20 odd years.”

“As this Civil War went on, the strengthening of the tie with Al Qaeda also was very useful militarily to the Taliban.”

On the beliefs of the Taliban:

“But I think you could say the Taliban were basically a primitive view of Islam, they wanted to go back to what they saw as the purity of the seventh century. And so no music, no dancing, beards had to appear. You couldn’t have short hair, you could be lashed in the street or wearing the wrong clothes. It was a total domination of society attempt to impose these strictures at the same time, they had very few technocrats.”

“Government functioning basically broke down, not because they were opposed to institutions, but because they had no way of running them.”

On the U.S and Afghan relationship prior to 9/11:

“There was some interchange, we did not recognize the Taliban. We did not reopen our embassy, which had been closed earlier.”

On what was happening in Afghanistan during 9/11:

“The way people tell it now, you think we went into create democracy, actually, quite the contrary. We went in to try to get out as quickly as we could, having brought justice to Al Qaeda. And for that matter, we put very few troops into Afghanistan.”

“We had very few troops. We prevented NATO from sending additional troops to stabilize because we thought they would get in the way of our hunting terrorists. We did not begin real economic development aid for almost two years, the early aid that went to Afghanistan was entirely so-called humanitarian assistance for refugee relief and seeding people.”

On the Taliban resurgence:

“The insurgency was getting worse. There was not nearly out of control. And the last sort of official, in that analytical telegram report that I sent from Afghanistan before my departure, best I remember, this would have been early 2007. I said, ‘We are not losing now. We have no margin for surprise, in a country that is full, has been full of surprises historically. And we could be losing in a year. That’s where that was how I saw the situation, then.’”

On the Taliban’s current power:

“At this point, the Taliban control somewhere between 50% and 80% of the country, very rough figures, mostly rural or entirely rural. They don’t control any of the province capitals. Their presence on the roads has increased.”

“The Taliban appear to be grouping around a number of cities, which they may attempt to take. They have made several attempts in the past, beginning in 2014. To take provincial capitals, every one of those attacks was defeated. So it’s not like there was a steady, frontline advancing from the telephone and the government being defeated. It’s much more complicated, a lot of ground the Taliban controls is now rural areas where we stopped flying, fighting, and bombing and the Afghans are out of those areas as well. But the situation is certainly serious.”

On Taliban strength:

“Their equipment has steadily increased. It doesn’t really cost a whole lot to run. They’re kind of a war since it’s not exactly a high-tech battle organization. Some of their funding comes probably from Pakistan, a lot of it comes from individual donors, some of the Gulf. Some of it comes out of drugs, I don’t think that is nearly as major an element as we sometimes claim. Some of it comes from local taxes. The vast majority of Taliban fighters are Afghan. Some of them are people, Afghans who were refugees went to madrasahs in Pakistan. But the figures I’ve seen when people have really looked at, you know, who are by killing and who might take in prisoner battlefield, the majority of Taliban are fighting within 10 or 20 miles of their home villages in Afghanistan.”

On the peace process:

“There is no peace. There is process. There is no peace negotiation. Substantive negotiations have never begun. The process of meeting has begun. But no substantive issues have ever been put on the table.”

“The Afghan government side, which is a composite of government, actually, and other political forces, called the Republic Team, has put substantive proposals for. Telephonic never agreed to discuss any of those. They’ve just produced more conditions, more prisoners to be released other things concessions. There is, in my judgment, absolutely no reason to believe you will get to a peace anytime soon.”

“So they may well look for a way to manage, if they are winning as the way they say they’re winning or think they’re winning, then they may try to manage something looks like a negotiated surrender. But that’s not a peace agreement in anything like the terms that we have talked about peace.

On future U.S. policy if the U.S. were not to withdraw:

“The crux of the decision, and the crux of the argument is how much risk the United States takes by leaving Afghanistan to its fate.”

“In the process of making this decision, we are essentially abandoning a lot of secondary objectives. We’ve spent a lot of money and a lot of time over the last 20 years, talking about the importance of democracy, the importance of freedom of the press, and freedom of some room for freedom of religion, freedom of speech, women’s rights. We spent a lot of taxpayer money to get help build those things. A lot of Afghans have come to believe in them. The Afghans who believe in them are regularly being killed by the telephone, or as a regular process of assassination going on in the streets of Kabul.”

“One of the amusing things in a way of President Biden’s returned to normal practice is we went out really had a serious consultation with the NATO allies to see what they thought about Afghanistan. And then we ignored all their advice and made our decision. So I think the decision is moving too quickly.”

“The Afghans are doing all the fighting, and they’ve been doing all the dying at the rate of several 1000 a month in combat. So what we’re ending is our support for an Afghan war much more than an American war. I personally feel a sense of betrayal, but you know, it is has been 20 years and the President’s the person who got elected, it’s his decision to make.”

“You do not have a military stalemate. You do not have a belief on the Taliban side, that they can’t win. We’re getting out on 9/11. 9/11 for Al Qaeda now becomes Al Qaeda Victory Day — 9/11 of 2021 is the date that Al Qaeda triumphs over the United States in alliance with the Taliban”

On helping others escape Kabul:

“I would say that we will have a moral debt to the people who believed in the values we taught for 20 years, and who accepted democracy and became journalists and became critics of the government as well as the Taliban. And people who were honest judges, which there are a few but not many people who went through our training and became senior military, people who became leaders of civil society organizations and election organizations. They didn’t work for us. They worked for their own country. But they also worked for the beliefs that we taught and stood for. And I think we’re going to have a moral responsibility to them if the country does fall apart. And we have not addressed that yet.”

Will We Return to Afghanistan?

“I have no idea really. It is not impossible. It is very, very difficult to see any way that we would go back into Afghanistan at this point. It is very difficult to see how we would do that.”

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