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Amb. Neumann meeting with Karzai in 2005 (AP photo)

The case for a slow pullout from Afghanistan

COMMENTARY | April 25, 2011

Despite lopsided, growing public opposition to the war, former ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann holds that it would be dangerous for American troops to leave soon. "The thing to watch is the next year," Neumann says.

This is the first in a new Nieman Watchdog series, ‘Reporting the Afghanistan endgame

Ronald E. Neumann was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, and went there in March on a fact-finding tour at the request of Gen. David Petraeus. Barry Sussman, editor of Nieman Watchdog, met with Amb. Neumann in Washington, DC, and this email Q&A was put together afterward.

Neumann is now president of a the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington, and is the author of a book, The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan (Potomac Press, 2009). In this interview, he is expressing his own views and not speaking for the Academy.

Sussman: Ambassador Neumann, as you know, polls show three of every four Americans want a substantial troop withdrawal from Afghanistan this summer. There are powerful reasons for opposing the war. Al Qaeda has no presence to speak of in Afghanistan; there are regular reports of enormous, high level corruption; innocent lives keep getting taken week after week; the dollar cost is enormously high. Despite all that, I think your view is that more time is needed – that it would be a mistake to have a significant withdrawal beginning in July, the time President Obama planned as the start of a troop draw-down. Why is that?

Neumann: I believe that if we leave Afghanistan too soon we will create two kinds of dangers. One is the encouragement of Islamic radicals who consider themselves at war with us and have said for a decade that we would give up. Beating the superpower U.S. will bring them adherents, cash and operational strength for more efforts to strike the U.S. Secondly, there are many reasons to believe that early departure will lead to a renewed Taliban and al-Qaida offensive and perhaps a civil war in Afghanistan. Different parties will contend for power and they will draw in India, Pakistan, Iran and Russia. The war is likely to continue for years since none of the parties will have the strength to win and their outside backers will be afraid to lose. While this goes on Central Asia will be hugely destabilized. Al Qaida will return to bases in Afghanistan. Pakistan is not likely to confront the dangers of extremism inside Pakistan while maneuvering with extremists against India in Afghanistan.

It is possible that my fears could be overstated but I think the burden of proof is on those who want to either accept such risks or deny that they exist. Simply saying that the dominoes didn’t fall in Vietnam is an interesting analogy but not an intellectual argument.

Q. What are the minimum conditions needed in Afghanistan so that the U.S. can pull its troops out? 

A.  First, Afghan security forces, essentially the army, capable of carrying on the level of fighting that is likely to remain after our departure. The Taliban are not “ten feet tall” so the standard I am referring to is not impossible but it does require dynamic leaders willing to fight for their country as well as their having essential support and logistics capabilities that are only now being developed. That said, I see this as a process, not a single moment in time. Certain areas, difficult ones, must be turned over to an Afghan lead while U.S. forces are thinned out but remain available in extremis. Whether this is possible should become clearer over the next year. The Afghan Army must be given some opportunity to learn, even to fail, before being suddenly left on its own. Additionally, the Afghan central government must control the more rapacious local leaders and institute a modicum of fair government so that there is a reason for Afghans to support the government.

Q. What do you make of the current Koran riots, with UN workers and others killed in different parts of the country because a Koran a malicious preacher in Florida burned a copy of the Koran. Do they carry any special significance or impact, aside from being such unfortunate events?

A. The events are very unfortunate but not entirely new. We have seen such riots before, inspired by wild rumors and bad cartoons, not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere in the Islamic world. Whether there were specific instigators who took advantage of the situation has been charged but I have not yet seen any definitive evidence.

Q. The Taliban aside, you mentioned a concern that there could be a civil war among other groups after we quit Afghanistan. Can you please explain?

A. A renewed Taliban offensive against an unready Afghan army without strong U.S. backing is likely to lead to Taliban victories in parts of the country. Many non-Pushtun groups fear this could lead the present Afghan government to make a political deal with the Taliban, bringing them back to some measure of power in return for survival of the government. This may not happen but such an outcome is greatly feared by many, particularly the non-Pushtuns. The minorities, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and others, were massacred and abused by the Taliban. They would fight rather than submit to a return of the Taliban that could threaten them. This would be the cause of a civil war. They might not wait to see if all their fears were realized.

Q. You have said that with Gen. Petraeus in charge, the U.S. is now on the right track but that there still is no certainty of a favorable outcome. I think your view is that at some point we will come to a conclusion that either Afghanistan will hold together and we can leave, or that it will never hold together and therefore we should leave. Is this your view, and if yes, do you have a time frame in mind for when we can reach one of those  conclusions?

A. “Leaving” is a word that probably causes more confusion than enlightenment since it has an all-at-once quality that brings little clarity. NATO decided last November that by 2014 Afghanistan would take the lead militarily. I believe this is feasible. What it means is that the there would be a slow withdrawal of major U.S. combat forces over the next three years. Some U.S. units that are deployed with Afghan units, partnered, would probably remain throughout this time and some support, such as air, artillery and medical evacuation would stay. Afghan replacements for these supporting forces (or enablers in military jargon) are being built.

The process started very late and cannot be accomplished by 2014. Even after the burden of the war is transferred to the Afghans U.S. military trainers would be required for some time. However, the great bulk of U.S. forces would be out by the end of 2014. The thing to watch is the next year. If U.S. forces can transfer some of the difficult areas such as Helmand to the Afghans, and the Afghans can hold them, then transition will begin to have credibility. If nothing important or difficult has been transferred a year from now the strategy will have to be questioned.

Q. The U.S. relationship with President Karzai is very strange. We criticize him, he criticizes us; we make up, and then the sniping begins again. You know Karzai personally and met with him one-on-one during your recent visit. Can you tell us why there are so many ups and downs?

A. The poor relations with President Karzai have grown over several years because of problems on both sides. Afghanistan does suffer from weak government with a high degree of corruption. President Karzai is poorly positioned to control these problems. He controls very little money since virtually the entirety of Afghanistan’s development comes from foreign donors and many projects are executed without coordination with or consent by the Afghan government. Nor does President Karzai control force since military operations are directed by NATO/ISAF.

Years of warfare have left few Afghans with any confidence that they can rely on pensions or continuing employment so there is a strong social pressure to grab what one can to protect oneself. These problems are large but not unique to Afghanistan. However, the way we have gone about addressing them with President Karzai has made the problems worse rather than better. Two years of strident public criticism by U.S. officials were taken by many Afghans as evidence that the U.S. was against Karzai, perhaps even intending to overthrow him. This is because in Afghan culture one would never criticize a friend in public in this manner unless the friendship was over and the criticism was an excuse for moving against him. The idea that the criticism could actually be about what is stated is not credible to Afghans. When we continued this behavior it set off a search for the “real” reasons. 

Additionally, the U.S. also has employed as contractors equally corrupt warlords. This was done through ignorance, pressure for speed, and lack of knowledge of power and patronage networks in Afghanistan. Yet the result is to create further questions along the line of “why should I fire my crooks if you won’t fire yours?”  NATO and USAID are now seeking to clean up their own contracting problems but are finding this hard and lengthy.

The decision to begin withdrawal of troops in July 2011 caused considerable additional confusion. While the decision had various caveats about conditions on the ground it was the date that was emphasized in President Obama’s statements. This convinced many--not just Afghans but Pakistanis and even the Taliban--that America was on the way out of Afghanistan. Since virtually no one believed that the Afghan army would be ready to take over so quickly, this perception created a scramble for survival. Finally, there is considerable confusion among Afghans as to longer term U.S. intentions. When I was in Afghanistan in March I heard essentially the same point from President Karzai, opponents like Dr. Abdullah, ex-ministers who oppose Karzai and even Afghans who are not in politics at all; each asking what our intentions are. This may be unfair but the fact is that they do not understand our longterm strategic intent.

The result of all this is that President Karzai has developed strong suspicions that we are either against him or will leave before a state and army strong enough to survive have been built. Accordingly, he has adopted a survival strategy, that is, he is seeking to build a network of supporters who will sustain him politically and militarily if America bails out or moves against him. For survival he will tolerate poor performance in these supporters. From his point of view he has little choice if the U.S. is about to pull the plug; and we have not told him otherwise. 

He is also seeking to define himself as something other than an American puppet (Afghan history shows that those marked as foreign puppets generally came to a bad end when their foreign patron departed). This produces public criticism. Sometimes it is excessive and unfair to us. Yet we seem not to pay attention to anything less than a scream. For example, the issue of control of the private security companies began in 2006 but we offered no plans or alternatives until the issue became a crisis in 2010. The result is a messy lack of trust and mutual bad feeling. The U.S. is by far the bigger and stronger player. Hence, if the situation is to be improved it needs to start with greater strategic clarity from our side. Even if that is possible, patience and time will be needed. We have a home to which to return. If things end badly that will not be the case for Afghans like President Karzai. That imbalance is bound to make him cautious.

Q. It is too soon to know how the stunning Muslim revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa will turn out. Each country is different, but there is one thing they share: In each, citizens are trying to remove oppressive, corrupt regimes on their own – not at the instigation of Islamic extremists or outsiders. Have we been exaggerating the influence of al Qaeda and other extremist or terrorist groups in that part of the world? 

A. It is too soon to know. The result might be as you suggest. Yet none of the countries that have recently experienced mass movements and regime change have yet stabilized. Some or all may go through very chaotic situations as they try to find their political footing. Making major policy decisions on the basis of conjecture alone seems a weak basis for gambling national security.


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