An expert on Afghanistan gives the Trump administration solid marks for developing a strategy there that could actually work, even though he says “they’re doing a terrible job of explaining it.”
Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, was in Manhattan Thursday to speak in a lecture series at Kansas State University. He called the new approach to Afghanistan “sensible and holistic,” and said the challenge now will be to stick with it and implement it well.
Just since 2009, he said, there have been five separate U.S. policies on Afghanistan. Under President Obama, there was initially an increase in troop levels, then a focus on growing the Afghan army, then a cap on that, then a removal of combat troops, and then a reversal of that removal. The strategy “has been all over the damn lot…Frankly, we’ve been screwing it up.”
The new approach is to focus on reform of the Afghan military to favor professionally trained troops; reform of the Afghan government to root out corruption; continued economic aid; a removal of timelines and deadlines (while also conveying that we don’t have “infinite patience”); and a new policy on dealing with Pakistan. That neighboring country has long sheltered the Taliban, and Neumann said the U.S. has to try to find a solution to that problem.
While calling that package of approaches “holistic,” Neumann blamed the Trump administration for failing to explain it well. Trump, who campaigned on the idea of getting out of Afghanistan, is instead now engaging more deeply in it. Neumann said Trump could have explained that by simply blaming the mess on Obama and saying it’s going to take awhile to clean it up. But he hasn’t.
Neumann said part of the trouble is a matter of defining victory in Afghanistan. The definition under President George W. Bush – under whom Neumann served – “kept expanding,” whereas President Obama tried to narrow it but couldn’t. President Trump appears to be defining it as not allowing Afghanistan to be used as a training ground for terrorists to attack us. That’s the same rationale as was used in the original invasion of Afghanistan 16 years ago.
Neumann said the U.S. is likely to need to remain actively engaged in Afghanistan for a long time, but he said he could envision “a gradual phasing down” of military involvement. “It’s do-able, but it’s not guaranteed. It’s going to be a long time…but it would help if we would stick with one policy and learn how to do it well.”
Neumann is now the president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. A career diplomat, he also served as an ambassador to Algeria under President Clinton.
He was in Manhattan to speak in the Political, Diplomatic and Military Lecture Series, which is coordinated by K-State’s Office of Military and Veteran Affairs. He spent part of Thursday speaking to military personnel in Leavenworth.
Historical note: Neumann’s father was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan as well, making the Neumanns the first father-son ambassador team to the same country since John Adams and John Quincy Adams both served as ministers to Britain.