U.S. Gen. John R. Allen, left, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, listens to U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker *85, before a change of command ceremony in Kabul on June 12, 2012.
AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq

Through a long career in the foreign service, Ryan Crocker *85 has served in several highly sensitive locations as U.S. ambassador to Lebanon (1990-93), Kuwait (1994-97), Syria (1998-2001), Pakistan (2004-07), Iraq (2007-09), and Afghanistan (2011-12). Now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Crocker spoke with PAW about the U.S. decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and its possible implications for the country and the region.

You have been critical both of the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and the way it was executed. Why?

President Biden’s decision to embrace President Trump’s decision to withdraw completely was a strategic error. I think we have exposed ourselves to grave danger because by pulling all the way out we have degraded our intelligence capabilities there. We have created a pre-9/11 situation with respect to the Taliban and Al Qaeda and degraded our capacity to know what is out there coming after us. 

Almost as bad, the way we withdrew was a complete mess and has allowed the Taliban to have the narrative that they have defeated the infidels clad only in the armor of the one true faith. That is going to resonate throughout the region and beyond, giving a huge boost to militant Islamic groups everywhere.

Isn’t it possible for the United States to vigorously resist Islamic terrorism without having troops on the ground in Afghanistan?

We have degraded our ability to know where targets are and who targets should be. You can’t hit it if you can’t identify it, and when it comes to intelligence, there really is no substitute for having people on the ground. We’re going dark there on the intel side and that’s a problem.

Could the U.S. have sustained a military presence in Afghanistan?

It has been sustainable for quite a while. When I was ambassador to Afghanistan, we had just about 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground plus a large number from NATO. The Taliban could carry out attacks, but it held no provincial capitals. Progressively we drew down our force levels, so that when President Obama left office in 2017, we had maybe 14,000-15,000 troops and the Taliban still occupied no provincial capitals. Then we took it another step under President Trump down to 5,000. 

I think it was indefinitely sustainable both in blood and treasure. But we’ve had two presidents decide that they wanted to “end the war” by removing all U.S. troops and it is increasing our threat levels, unfortunately. It was a step we did not have to take.

Some have said that, because of the agreement reached between President Trump and the Taliban in February 2020 to release Taliban prisoners and begin withdrawing U.S. troops, the Taliban was growing stronger, and that reversing that agreement would have required a significant increase in American forces. Do you agree with that?

I think that would have been the case, but President Biden bears the burden of blame. It was President Trump who put all this in place, but Biden is the sitting president. If President Biden had chosen to rethink our policy, it would have resulted in increased attacks from the Taliban, and we would have had to be ready for that. 

But we are the United States of America. We are still the strongest power on earth. We could have done it, but it would have required the President to act like a president, to speak to the American people about the threats and the consequences and the options, to use what used to be called the “bully pulpit.” The American people do not shrink from tough missions as long as they are explained to them. President Biden could have made that explanation. Instead, he chose to embrace President Trump’s policy.

In an Aug. 21 op-ed in the New York Times, you criticized the administration for a lack of “strategic patience” in Afghanistan. What do you think our policy towards Afghanistan should have been?

I think we should have announced that we would be engaged in Afghanistan in whatever manner necessary for whatever length of time necessary to ensure our national security. We’ve done this in the past. Our level of commitment should have been determined by conditions on the ground, not by the calendar [of withdrawal]. Working with our Afghan allies, we had gotten our troop levels pretty low and our casualty levels very low and our expenditures therefore much reduced. There would have been a financial cost to maintaining a troop presence in Afghanistan and a risk to our service members, but given 9/11 and the cost of that, it would have been a pretty cheap insurance policy.

Sadly, we have been in this situation before, where our adversaries count on our impatience and our allies fear it. What we have done now is completely vindicate that judgment. Going forward, it is going to be a lot harder for us to sign up allies for endeavors that involve force and action because they’ll look at the record.

This month marks the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. How would you assess the success of the War on Terror?

It’s a phrase I never use. Terror is not a country or a movement or an ideology. It’s a tactical weapon that a smaller entity uses when it cannot face a greater power in conventional battle. You can’t declare war on a means of making war and expect to defeat it. That’s just silly. So, how do you prevent your adversary from having the time, space, and means to inflict damage on you through suicide bombs or whatever means? That depends on the situation you confront. 

But you’re simply clouding the picture to say, “These are acts of terror, we will go to war against them.” All I can say is, whoever came up with the phrase was not a student of philosophy at Princeton.

Interview conducted and condensed by M.F.B. ’83