Ryan Crocker is a career diplomat who served the U.S. government throughout the Middle East, but his name and work are linked to two post-9/11 postings: Iraq from 2007-09 and Afghanistan in 2011-12.
He helped establish the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan in 2002 and has been highly critical of the U.S. government’s decision to withdraw troops from the country 20 years after they arrived.
Now retired, Crocker, 72, recently spoke with The New Mexican by phone about America’s actions in Afghanistan and the potential consequences of its abrupt departure.
Question: What are the chances ISIS or another version of al-Qaida could do what it did in 2001?
Answer: Our defenses are infinitely stronger than they were then; it would be much, much harder, I think, for any strategic adversary to carry out that kind of attack. But I can’t say we don’t need to worry about it anymore, particularly in view of what we’ve just seen in Afghanistan. The Taliban are back in control. … They never broke their linkages to al-Qaida. … They’ve taken 20 years of exile instead, and we are already seeing an al-Qaida return.
They are putting the band back together, and this not a theoretical threat. These are the guys who brought us 9/11. Our defenses are better now, but we can count on a determined reentry and them working on trying to figure out how to penetrate better.
And of course, by our exiting from Afghanistan, our ability to obtain intelligence on what our adversaries may be planning is taking a big hit. We are not on the ground there any longer, and our director of central intelligence has already said that is going to cost us in terms of our ability to gain intelligence.
The Taliban is proclaiming the defeat of the infidels by the band of brothers clad only in the armor of the one true faith. The psychological boost to violent Islamic groups is huge. It could do wonders for recruitment and fundraising.
Question: Do you consider Afghanistan a failure of policy, of vision or simply an impossible mission, given its tribal nature and weak history of democracy?
Answer: None of the above. It’s a failure of American patience. We didn’t go to Afghanistan to build the model democracy. We didn’t go to make a bunch of money. We went to Afghanistan because 9/11 came from there. … When we had the “surge” [there were] almost 100,000 American troops on the ground, and the Taliban occupied none of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals.
That force has drawn down in subsequent years. [There were] 13,000 when [President Barack] Obama left office, and when [President Donald] Trump took over … with almost a 90 percent cut in our forces, the Taliban still occupied none of the capitals. Trump drew down further to 5,000 and then to 2,500 and the Taliban still occupied none of the 34 capitals.
And then we ran out of patience. We just decided we are done, we’re gone. … That was the only strategic change in all those years, and now they occupy the whole country in a matter of days.
Question: The U.S. military, according to published reports, was trying to transition out of a counterterrorism mode as Afghanistan wound down and the world changed. Is that wise now that Afghanistan is back in Taliban hands?
Answer: I guess I don’t see that the same way. What President Biden has been saying very consistently is that we need to focus on security challenges around the world, not just like in places like Afghanistan. We need to have a counterterrorism focus in a lot of different places, because the world has changed since 9/11. I see him saying we need to do more in a lot of places. Yeah, that is true. But it doesn’t mean we should take our eye off Afghanistan.
Question: In your New York Times op-ed, you said time and patience had to be part of the U.S. calculus in Afghanistan. Given the American mindset, and our enemies’ ability to wait it out, should the U.S. ever commit to long-term conflicts?
Answer: We don’t commit to long-term conflicts. … If they do become long term, that is when we start getting edgy and looking for the door. … We have created an atmosphere in which our allies worry about our commitment and our patience and our enemies count on that impatience. [The way we pulled out of Afghanistan] will reinforce the fears of allies and increase courage and confidence of our enemies.
Question: Do you blame the disaster of the past few weeks at the feet of Biden or Trump or at the doorsteps of many?
Answer: There is good news and bad news. The good news is on a really important issue involving our core national security, two very different administrations agreed on one point. The bad news was it was on complete withdrawal from Afghanistan. ... It’s a huge strategic blunder. [There is] plenty of blame to go around. … It did start with President Trump. He authorized negotiations with the Taliban and that was the beginning of the end. … The weight of blame clearly rests with Biden because he made the decisions as president, but Trump left him with a very, very poor hand to play.
Question: What would you have done differently?
A: We had gotten to the point where, with a minimum number of forces, we could support the Afghan forces. There are a lot of problems out there in the world that can’t be completely fixed, but they can be managed, and this was one. … Again, we went from 100,000 to less than 10,000 [troops in Afghanistan] without the Taliban begin able to hold any significant town.
It was costing us very little in blood and treasure and it was our insurance policy against another 9/11. I would argue the premium on that policy was pretty cheap. We didn’t need to run the risk of a complete pullout; we could manage pretty well with a minimal force no longer there for direct combat.
Question: Are we right back where we started, 20 years later?
Answer: Yes, and that’s a scary thing. It’s the 10th of September all over again.