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The 8 a.m. US Airways shuttle from Washington to New York City took off pretty much on time. The mid-September sky was clear, the air still, and most of the flight was perfectly uneventful. My State Department colleague David Pearce and I read the papers and looked over our notes as the plane began its descent toward LaGuardia.
"Look!" somebody said, and a rumble of alarmed voices spread through the cabin. One of the towers of the World Trade Center was on fire, and smoke churned over the upper stories like a thunderhead over lower Manhattan. We craned our necks to see through one window, then another as our plane banked and made its approach to the runway. Then, just as we landed, we saw in the distant skyline the second tower erupt in flames. Cell phones rang out, and random, frightened voices tried to make sense of what was happening.
For a diplomat, I have seen a lot of violence in my career. I survived the 1983 U.S. Embassy bombing in Beirut that was, until that day in September 2001, among the most infamous attacks on Americans in the history of terrorism. David is as experienced in the Middle East as anyone we have at State. But you didn't need our expertise to know, when that plane hit the second tower, that this was the work of terrorists.
In the taxi on the way into Manhattan, traffic slowed to a crawl and then stopped altogether in the middle of the Queensboro Bridge. As we looked down the East River we could see the burning towers now very clearly. Suddenly they imploded amid enormous clouds of dust and smoke, and the spectacle seemed impossible, almost dreamlike. Our cabdriver, an immigrant from South Asia—a Pakistani, I think—was shattered. And who was not that day?
I was born amid the wheat fields of eastern Washington state, and I live there again now. But for four decades, starting with a backpacking trip at age 21 from Amsterdam to Kabul to Calcutta, then in a State Department career with postings mostly in the greater Middle East, I spent my adult life abroad, as a student and diplomat. By September 11, I knew the world from which those 19 hijackers came almost better than I knew my own country. And what I knew most of all was that the two were bound together—even, perhaps especially, when the connections seemed too ephemeral for most Americans to bother with.
Americans tend to want to identify a problem, fix it, and then move on. Sometimes this works. Often it does not. Of course, imposing ourselves on hostile or chaotic societies is no solution either. The perceived arrogance and ignorance of overbearing powers can create new narratives of humiliation that will feed calls for vengeance centuries from now. What's needed in dealing with this world is a combination of understanding, persistence, and strategic patience to a degree that Americans, traditionally, have found hard to muster.
We have learned much since September 11, 2001, but we are still learning this lesson. As the war in Afghanistan enters its ninth year, with U.S. casualties rising and the Taliban revived, public opinion is turning against what was always, compared with Iraq, our "good war." No one, least of all me, has an easy fix to propose. But over the last eight years I was intimately involved with our country's effort to manage its relationship with the Middle East and South Asia. I know that success only comes from a solid, sustained commitment of resources and attention.
Back in D.C. a few days after the attacks on New York and Washington, I found the boarding pass for that US Airways shuttle among my things. Since then it has traveled with me in a little frame—to Kabul when I reopened the long-shuttered, partially bombed-out American Embassy there; to Islamabad, when I was appointed ambassador in 2004; and then to Baghdad, when Gen. David Petraeus and I got the job of trying to turn the Iraq War around in 2007. The pass was and is a reminder of how fast our world can change, especially when we Americans lose sight of the way other people in other parts of the globe think, and act, and remember.
The next flights I took, a little more than a week after 9/11, were to Paris, then Geneva. The shock of the attacks had pushed Washington to reengage with all sorts of unlikely partners as it prepared for war in Afghanistan, and as the deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf, I had been dispatched to deal with emissaries from Tehran.
At the beginning of my career in the early 1970s, I learned Persian and served in provincial Iran. But that was before the Islamic Revolution, and by 2001 the United States had had almost no direct dealings with the Iranian government for more than 20 years. The Geneva talks—under the aegis of a United Nations working group of countries that hosted large numbers of Afghan exiles—were not a secret. Still, we met in the cavernous conference rooms of the U.N. building in Geneva on Saturdays, when nobody else was around. Our conversations about the future of Afghanistan went on for hours and into the night, and occasionally adjourned to hotel suites. We ordered a lot of room service, and sometimes watched the sun rise from behind the Alps.
I was pleasantly surprised by my Iranian counterparts: two out of three had been educated in the States, and during breaks we compared notes on UCLA football. But what was most surprising to me was how eager they were for America, the "Great Satan," to send troops into their backyard. In early October, nearly a month after the attacks on the United States, we were sitting around the table in one of those U.N. conference rooms talking in fairly hypothetical terms about how a post-Taliban Parliament might be structured. One of the Iranian diplomats—very much an action-oriented guy—grew more and more frustrated until finally he stood up and, almost shouting, said that unless we stopped talking about "what might be" and started doing something about the regime currently in place, none of our meandering discussions would make any difference. Then he stomped out of the room. The U.S. bombing campaign, as it happened, started a few days later.
I went to Kabul myself after the Taliban fell, to reopen the U.S. Embassy for the first time since 1989. (Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage gave me the assignment in typically gruff fashion, calling me into his office the day after Christmas and barking, "Crocker, we need you in Afghanistan now.") Three decades of conflict had annihilated whole city blocks in the capital. Afghanistan had always been poor, and even when I hitchhiked across it as a longhaired college kid I'd never seen such miserable—and, still, such generous—people. But now there was no infrastructure left, no economy, no schools. In a remarkable understatement, I thought, half out loud, "My God, we've got quite a job in front of us."
The embassy—almost miraculously—was more or less intact. Some rockets had hit it. A lot of windows had been blown out. A small fire had done some damage, but that was all. For a dozen years the building had been empty, yet our Afghan local staff had never left their jobs. The gardeners continued to garden; the mechanics and the drivers maintained the vehicles; and the staff kept up a continuous presence that prevented the Taliban and others from entering the compound. Several were arrested for being "stooges of the Americans." They could have been killed. But they soldiered on for those dozen years. I think I can say they were deeply happy to see us return.
So were the Iranians, whose diplomats on the ground seemed eager to work with us and with the new Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai. One of the issues we were trying to sort out in those early days was the fate of former Afghan prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the most brutal and duplicitous of the mujahedin leaders in the 1980s and '90s, when he'd had close ties to the Pakistani intelligence services and, it was widely reported, to the CIA. Hekmatyar was under a kind of luxurious house arrest in north Tehran. Everyone understood that he had ties to Osama bin Laden, and that if he were free he'd do anything he could to take power from Karzai. We talked to the Iranians about what a great and good thing it would be if they moved Hekmatyar from house arrest to real arrest and transferred him to Afghan custody. Of course we wanted them to do something similar with any Qaeda fugitives they'd picked up. All that was on the table.
Then President Bush gave his first State of the Union address in January 2002, denouncing the Axis of Evil, which he defined as Iraq, North Korea—and Iran. Shortly thereafter, our "Geneva group" met in Kabul. The Iranian looked at me. "What are you guys doing?" he said. I don't know exactly what I answered, something along the lines of, "Look, I'm the guy in Kabul. We need to focus on the concrete issues with which we've been dealing." But I knew my job had just gotten a lot harder. Soon afterward the Iranians not only released Hekmatyar from house arrest, they reinserted him back into Afghanistan. Today his Hezb-i-Islami organization is one of the deadliest insurgent forces in eastern Afghanistan, where U.S. troops have taken their highest casualties since 2001.
Now, I'm not saying that American cooperation with the Iranians in Afghanistan wouldn't have broken down anyway at some point. In fact it continued until May 2003. But right from the start we were imposing our own constructs on a region we had barely started to reengage. By early March 2002, three months after the overthrow of the Taliban, it was obvious there were complexities at play in Afghanistan that we hadn't anticipated on the ground, let alone grappled with at a policy level. Operation Anaconda—a joint U.S.-Afghan effort to dislodge a large Taliban-Qaeda concentration in the mountains of Paktia province—turned out to be a much tougher fight than we'd anticipated. We had to use Northern Alliance armor—Tajik armor—which irritated our Pashtun allies in the south. Then we discovered that many ordinary Afghans, rather than fleeing the fighting, were flocking to the area to take up arms against us.
We shouldn't have been surprised. The Afghans had, by God, fought the Soviets. They'd fought the British before that. And now here were the Americans. (And, by the way, the British were with us.) It wasn't reasonable to expect that after a quarter century of conflict and several hundred years' history of battling outsiders, suddenly there was going to be nothing but sweetness and harmony on sun-dappled uplands going forward. Clearly our fight in Afghanistan not only was not over, it was arguably just getting started.
I think many people understand by now that this fundamental mistake—underestimating local rivalries and the intensity of resistance to occupation—was repeated on a grand scale in Iraq. That is not to say that Saddam Hussein did not deserve to be removed. Let's be clear about this, because I think it's something many Americans today, especially American liberals, have failed to recognize. Internally, in Iraq, Saddam was the most murderous, vicious ruler the world has known since the fall of the Nazis, with the possible exception of Pol Pot in Cambodia. He terrorized pretty much everyone in the country, even his inner circle. I was serving in Baghdad back in 1979 when he turned a congress of his Baath Party into a public purge, ordering dozens of his former comrades to leave the room and face immediate execution. Regionally, he invaded two of his neighbors. In the case of Iran, he touched off one of the bloodiest conflicts since World War II. He invaded Kuwait and subverted or attempted to subvert the Gulf states as well as Jordan and Syria. And I haven't even talked about weapons of mass destruction, which he undoubtedly wanted and which we genuinely thought he had acquired.
Still, Saddam's removal alone would not magically transform Iraq. After I'd returned to Washington in 2002, and as the war approached, what I feared most were all the unknowns that lay beyond the fighting. I knew from my time in Beirut that we were going to be setting in motion a multitude of forces, with consequences rippling out—20th-order consequences—and I didn't see how we were prepared to deal with them. Or in truth, even with all the preparation in the world, I didn't know that we could deal with them.
Along with many others at the State Department, I supported the interagency studies of the Future of Iraq Project. I thought I'd learned some lessons in Kabul that might be relevant. Toward the end of the year, the Office of Iraqi Affairs, which I supervised, made an effort simply to lay out for policymakers some of the things that might happen if we intervened militarily in Iraq. Sometimes called "The Perfect Storm Memo," it's still a classified document, so I'm not in a position to go through its content in any detail. But in any case it had no operational traction.
Washington turf battles had direct implications on the battlefield. In Baghdad in April 2003, after Saddam fell, few U.S. commanders had a clear picture of the political landscape and its importance to the overall mission. I remember meeting one in particular who had zero interest in anything except getting the kinetics right—deploy, defend, point and shoot. I tried to give him a sense of what the country would look like now for the Iraqis and, indeed, for his forces, if we didn't find a way to address all sorts of economic, social, and political issues. His response (and he was not alone): "This isn't our mission here. The things you are telling me are interesting, but they have nothing to do with me."
At this point, having made the fateful decision to intervene in Iraq, we weren't intervening enough. The end of the dictatorship translated almost immediately into an end to public order. It was as if a door had opened for criminals to run through. Looters ruled the streets, pillaging shops and government buildings, ransacking the National Museum, even tearing apart the country's electrical grid and selling off the metal in the wires as scrap. Iraqis took the chaos to mean the Americans didn't really give a damn about them, weren't able to control events, and had neither a plan nor the resources necessary to control the country.
They weren't entirely wrong. What was the plan to restart a government, for instance? Nobody really knew. For weeks we negotiated to create an Iraqi governing body representative of the country's many different factions, ethnicities, and faiths. It was an all-consuming effort; one in which we got crucial help from the United Nations mission led by Sergio Vieira de Mello, who announced the formation of the Iraqi Governing Council in mid-July. Then a suicide bomber attacked U.N. headquarters at the Canal Hotel in Baghdad, killing Sergio and many of his colleagues. The loss was catastrophic. The collapse of the U.N. effort that followed the bombing meant there was no neutral force to shepherd the political process. For the insurgents, it was easy now to frame the conflict as Iraqis vs. Occupiers.
Sometimes, terrorism works, and our adversaries in Iraq understood the dynamics there much better than many of us. They understood and exploited our ignorance. They thought they could rely on our historical lack of staying power. And about that they were almost right.
The Iraqis were not alone in thinking that Americans could not be relied upon. The following year I was sent as ambassador to Islamabad, where an entire generation of politicians and military commanders had been conditioned to believe that the United States was an unreliable ally.
Look at the history. The tribal areas of northwest Pakistan have never been under the control of any authority outside those rugged hills, ever. For a decade we staged our effort against the Soviets out of the North-West Frontier, in the name of Islam. We organized it; the Pakistanis supported it; the Saudis funded it. Then we decided to move on. We went from being the most allied of allies to slapping sanctions on Islamabad after its nuclear tests. As the Pakistanis saw it, we pulled up stakes and left them with the monster we'd helped create. They didn't trust us.
Often we didn't trust them. But it doesn't work very well with the Pakistanis to say, "We'll give you this, if you do that, and if you don't, we'll take it away." Given our record, they tended to read this as the prelude to another U.S. walkout and would hedge their bets. While I was in Islamabad, conventional wisdom in Washington held that President Pervez Musharraf hadn't done enough to rein in either Islamic militants like Lashkar-e-Taiba who were focused on Kashmir, or Qaeda supporters in the tribal areas. The demands from Washington always focused on the immediate and the tactical: "Get that group! Get those leaders!" When we demanded that Musharraf crack down on Lashkar—who were seen as heroic freedom fighters by most Pakistanis—he'd say, "I cannot take them on frontally. It would not only destroy me, it would destroy the nation."
Building confidence is a long process, but sometimes you can take great strides in a short time. In 2005 an earthquake killed more than 70,000 Pakistanis in two minutes. The United States responded immediately with what became the largest and longest airborne relief effort since the Berlin Airlift 60 years ago. Early on, some of us thought it would be a good idea to put big American flag decals on the Chinook helicopters that had been ordered out of Afghanistan into Pakistan to deliver aid. "Are you completely crazy?" said the commander of the helicopter contingent. He'd just come out of a war zone, after all. "Why don't we just save time and paint a big bull's-eye on them?"
"No, no. Trust us on this," I said. "It'll work." And it did. The Chinooks became an emblem of the whole international relief effort. After a couple of months, little toy Chinooks even started appearing in stores with big American flags on the side. (Of course, they were made in China.)
My last assignment for the State Department was to return to Iraq, in March 2007. The problems that had begun to develop in the first weeks after the invasion had become monstrous. Sunnis and Shiites were slaughtering each other with guns and knives and power drills. Roadside bombs were picking off American soldiers by the dozens.
The Middle East is a region that knows it cannot keep determined superpowers out. For hundreds of years, whether the French or British, the Russians or the Americans, they've muscled their way in. But while countries in the region don't have that hard left cross at their disposal to block outsiders, they've got a wicked counterpunch. Once you're in, then they go to work.
I learned this firsthand on April 18, 1983. I was sitting in my fourth-floor office in the Beirut embassy when a tremendous force—I heard no sound—slammed me into the wall. My wife, Christine, whose desk was right outside my office, got a nasty whack in the head when the windows blew in; the Mylar glued to them wrapped all the flying glass into a hard ball. Our injuries were superficial, but a truck bomb had ripped off the whole façade of one wing of the embassy, right up to the seventh floor. As I headed out of our suite of offices, which were at the back, I could see that the CIA station, which was on the same floor in the front, was just gone. I was looking out on open air.
In all, 63 people, including 17 Americans, were killed by that explosion, and less than a year later, after another bomb had destroyed the U.S. Marine barracks, the United States withdrew from Lebanon. Not only the Iranians, whose proxies had launched those attacks, learned from that experience. When I arrived in Baghdad, Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias, as well as their backers in Syria and Iran, believed they were on the verge of driving America out of Iraq. We lacked—as they'd seen in Lebanon—strategic patience. But instead of stepping back, we stepped forward, and not just with troops. Christine came with me to Baghdad, and one day in March 2008, when Shiite militias were raining mortars down on the Green Zone, our house was shelled. A staff aide brought me a note during a meeting: "Your house was just rocketed, but wife is okay." Every single window in the upstairs of our Baghdad home had been blown out. Still, she stayed.
Like anything solid, the relationship between Dave Petraeus and me was built over time. We started working together before either of us arrived in Baghdad, when he was still stationed at Fort Leavenworth and I was in Islamabad. We never had what's called unity of command, but we were committed to unity of effort and we worked constantly at it. We understood that no issue in Iraq would be purely military or purely political.
In June 2007, a few months into the surge, the Golden Mosque in Samarra was bombed. A year before, a similar bombing at the mosque had set off a sectarian bloodbath. I heard the news, instantly thought I needed to talk to Dave—and he was already standing in my office. We agreed we needed to see Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki face to face, immediately. All this happened with a minimum of discussion; it was intuitive. In any event, as we worked with Maliki, we were able to stop the kind of reprisals that had led to such disastrous consequences the year before. History is made up of things that didn't happen, as well as those that did. And the fact that violence did not break out after the second Samarra bombing may well have been the turning point in the surge.
The strategy we followed was all about adapting our tactics to the society as it was, not as we thought maybe it ought to be, and proving to Iraqis that we would not simply give up on them and walk away. But as the United States turns increasing attention to Afghanistan—and talks about sending more troops—it needs to be careful what lessons it draws from Iraq.
In Afghanistan, too, the decision has been made to talk to people who have been fighting against us, and perhaps even to enlist their support. The question is not whether they have been shooting at us; it's whether we can get them to stop shooting. But relentless internal conflict is not endemic in Iraq. In Afghanistan it is. For most Afghans an effective central government isn't even a distant memory. Tribal identity is everything. And Al Qaeda and the Taliban have learned from the mistakes of the insurgencies in Iraq. They have not forced the people to turn against them. They know the hills and valleys of the political terrain as well as they do the killing fields of Helmand province or the caves of Tora Bora. They have learned strategic patience. I can't begin to predict what will unfold in Afghanistan, or in Iraq. But as I leave the field, I take heart from the fact that Dave Petraeus, my comrade from Baghdad who knows all about strategic patience, has oversight of both wars.
Today I find myself very far from those forbidding lands, back among Americans who might imagine that they are distant, maybe irrelevant. But then, above my computer there is a little piece of paper in a frame to remind me of the dangers when you turn your back on the world, thinking you can walk away.