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Former U.S. Ambassador: Taliban Talks Is 'The Road To Failure'

Sep 8, 2019
Originally published on September 8, 2019 7:11 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin this hour discussing the shocking news delivered by President Trump last night that he had canceled a secret meeting at the presidential retreat at Camp David with the Taliban and Afghanistan's president, Ashraf Ghani, which President Trump said was set for Sunday. Talks aimed at securing a peace deal that would end or at least curtail violence in Afghanistan and allow the U.S. to end nearly 20 years of operations in the country have been going on for nearly a year. But Mr. Trump said he canceled the talks because of an attack in Kabul last week which left 12 people dead, including an American soldier.

More than 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed in nearly 18 years of fighting in Afghanistan. We wanted to talk about the significance of all of this with a veteran diplomat who's served in nearly every relevant country in the region, including Afghanistan - Ryan Crocker.

Ambassador Crocker, thank you so much for talking with us.

RYAN CROCKER: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Before we begin, given your years of service in the State Department, I just have to ask you, what went through your mind when you saw the president's tweet?

CROCKER: You know, I thought at this point that nothing the president did could surprise me. He surprised me. To say the least, it is a stunning lack of understanding and judgment on his part, frankly.

MARTIN: Can you just walk me through that why?

CROCKER: Well, look at who we're talking to. This is the Taliban. It is not a sovereign government. To extend an invitation to Camp David for a meeting with the president when they have not accepted a ceasefire, a full ceasefire, when they are very much in the business of killing American troopers and Afghan civilians. This is not the first casualty that we've had out there since these talks began. But to invite people like that under these conditions to Camp David to be hosted by the president of the United States - that to me was something unthinkable until, obviously, he thought it.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of what role this meeting would have played in the discussions that have taken place so far? I mean, a lot of people are focusing on today sort of the optics of it. A lot of the people in the president's own party are having trouble with that - I mean, bringing the Taliban to meet at Camp David with the president of the United States. But substantively, though, what role would a discussion like this have played in trying to finalize these negotiations?

CROCKER: Well, it would be symbolic, in my view. But symbols count. It would be really according to the Taliban leadership status as a de facto state - absolutely the worst thing we could do for our own interests and those of our Afghan allies, the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The picture of shaking hands with the leadership of a group that brought us 9/11 - and to do it virtually on the anniversary of 9/11 - is unthinkable. Again, as I said, until he thought it.

MARTIN: Forgive me for asking you to speculate, but what do you think the consequence of this might be?

CROCKER: Well, as I scrambled to find some silver lining here, it may be that it has put an end to these talks in their current phase, giving us an opportunity to work with our allies, starting with the Afghan government, for a very different approach. So the problem didn't just start with the president's tweet. In my view, it started when these talks started last winter to have - give an end to the Taliban demand that they talk directly to us without the Afghan government is the road to failure and the road to defeat. It's reminiscent of the Paris peace talks on Vietnam where, effectively, the government then as the government now is saying, we surrender. Let's just negotiate the terms.

So if this particular excess has brought to the point where talks are over, this phase is at an end, we will recommit and relook at ways we might move forward. At the end of the day, there has to be a negotiated settlement. You don't end wars without it. But the tack this administration has taken since the beginning of these talks was going in absolutely the wrong direction. So if what the president tweeted puts an end to this phase, good. Let's regroup, reconsider and come up with a strategy that might actually work.

MARTIN: That was former ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker. He's also the diplomat in residence at Princeton University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.