This may stun the Washington cognoscenti, but America’s coolest head and most knowledgeable diplomat on Afghanistan believes the recent spate of Afghans killing NATO soldiers and firing on the top U.S. general’s plane is a sign of increasing Taliban weakness. “A large number of the attacks are perpetrated by Taliban infiltrators and represent a progressive degradation of their ability to engage us in unit combat,” argues recently retired ambassador Ryan Crocker, a career diplomat of 38 years. “They lost the ability to mount large-scale operations early in the NATO surge. Their -fallback—high-profile suicide attacks—didn’t work particularly well for them either, thanks to the excellent work of Afghan and international security forces.” Then his final plea, which he surely knows will strike few responsive chords: “We need to maintain perspective. There are tens of thousands of interactions every day between Afghan and international forces without incident.”
This positive assessment represents what the 63-year-old Crocker actually believes. In a wide-ranging exclusive interview with Newsweek, he does not mince words or play to the crowd (or to presidents). Agree with him or not, he knows what he’s talking about when it comes to Afghanistan or practically any other country in the Middle East and South Asia. Crocker is a person of great courage and directness—traits that should make recent presidents and many of their top aides tremble at the thought that he just might write his memoirs.
He’s been everywhere, done everything, diplomatically, time and again. As Ambassador Frank Wisner, the State Department’s Middle East expert of his day, put it: “Ryan is the premier U.S. diplomat of his generation.” George W. Bush called upon Crocker to be his ambassador to Baghdad when all was falling apart in Iraq in 2007. Barack Obama snatched him back from retirement in 2011 and dispatched him to lead the U.S. mission in Kabul and check the deterioration there. In his unequaled record of service, he also served as ambassador to Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and Pakistan, among other earlier posts in Iran, Afghanistan, and Egypt.
No diplomat matches him in direct experience in today’s Middle East, which is why his musings about war and near-war slam like a hammer on the public debate. So many situations around the world could be termed “problems from hell” that it becomes difficult to parse out “which are vital national-security threats, and which are just messy?” he reflects. If it’s a real threat, Crocker wants to know “What’s our plan?” He’s seen few plans. He’s seen a deadly combination of inexperience and political pressure to “just do something,” which has driven many an American politician to advocate for what he calls “ill-conceived military intervention abroad.”
Crocker trusted the Bush administration’s case that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. “Secretary of State Colin Powell believed it, and if he believed it, I was going to believe it too,” he says. But Crocker didn’t believe that was where the administration’s analysis should stop. He tried to inject a voice of experience into the conversation, arguing for a full examination of the potential consequences of what he thought likely to be an unnecessary war. He then threw a thunderbolt: “Look, there may well have been WMDs in Iraq, but Saddam was not very likely to use them in an aggressive war that he initiated, because he had to know the consequences would be the loss of his regime. He may have been insane, but he was not stupid.” With a wisdom often lacking in the White House, Crocker nailed the point: “Deterrence works when your opponent knows that, should he remain undeterred, he will perish.”
Crocker says he communicated these thoughts to Powell, but to no avail. “My retrospective view is, by that time, Powell had become so marginalized by Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld—and probably by that point even the president—that whatever he was saying, and I never knew for sure, they certainly weren’t listening.” Instead, these hawks ignored U.S. diplomats and assembled their own experts. These were, Crocker recounted, “individuals in academia who did know something about the Middle East, but never served there in a governmental capacity.” With some heat, Crocker imagines the hawks must have thought, Who needs those say-nothing, do-nothing foreign-service types when we’ve got some of the biggest names in Middle East studies who think we’re doing the right thing?
Some of these same Middle East experts are now pressing for U.S. military intervention in Syria. If Obama had Crocker in a discussion of Syria in the Situation Room today, he would hear these words of ultimate wisdom: the U.S. does not and cannot have much influence in that situation.
Afghanistan was different. Crocker agreed that we needed to hit the Taliban, and hit them hard, for their harboring of the 9/11 attackers. That said, he then would have had the U.S. focus on training, helping Afghans fight their own war rather than making it an American war. “If you are absolutely convinced that the vital national-security interests of the United States are on the line—that this could be another 9/11 or worse if we don’t take action—then action is probably called for.” But the next move should be “to decide: what is the minimal action that will avoid danger and not entangle us in running someone else’s country, which we cannot do.” He was happy about Bush’s keeping U.S. troop levels relatively low, and skeptical about President Obama’s substantial increases.
He punctuated the interview with a pungent explanation of his philosophy: “It’s pretty simple. Be very, very careful what you get into—and if you go through my checklist [on military intervention], you probably won’t intervene.” Then the exclamation point: “But if you do, and you’ve brought down a regime, created a total revolution in the sense that everything is swept away—institutions, the basis of law, security forces, the whole lot— then you’ve got to consider, having done that, what the consequences of a swift withdrawal might be. Because the ones who benefit from anarchy are almost always going to be our adversaries.”
He faults both Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for failing to agree to a limited U.S. troop presence in 2011. For Afghanistan, he’s advocating a similar approach: a small, training-oriented presence, special forces plus some logistics and intelligence, to stay there for an extended period past 2014.
Asked how he knows whether this approach will work, and won’t just squander American lives and money, Crocker again demonstrated his famed complexity and fairness of mind.
“That’s the issue,” he lamented. “You don’t. Dave [General Petraeus] and I didn’t know in early ’07 if [the Iraq surge] was going to work. But it was our last best shot, and we had to give it everything we could.”
Crocker’s ruminations echo those of the most experienced soldiers and diplomats. These professionals are seasoned, in countries around the world, in what works and what doesn’t in national-security policy. Their political superiors can’t match their firsthand involvement in matters of war and peace. No, these professionals shouldn’t be the decision makers, but they should be at the table when decisions are being made—and generally they are not. If presidents were willing to listen, they would hear the final words of Ryan Crocker’s interview: “If you didn’t think it through carefully before getting in, for God’s sake think it through carefully before you pull the plug. The consequences of withdrawal can be as great or greater than the consequences of intervention.”
Editor’s note: Late last month, Crocker was charged with driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident following a car crash in Washington state. He has pleaded not guilty. Asked for comment, Crocker said: “On advice of counsel, no comment. I am sure you understand.”