The United States’ ongoing negotiations with the Taliban without the Afghan government have delegitimized the government the U.S. claims to support, according to a six-time ambassador and the former dean of the Bush School of Government & Public Service.

Ryan Crocker, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Lebanon, Kuwait, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan, made these and other remarks during his return to the Texas A&M University campus Thursday. Crocker delivered a lecture on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, including the negotiations aimed at a cease-fire and withdrawal of American troops. 

The Taliban “almost from the beginning” has said it is ready to talk with the U.S., Crocker said, “but we’re not going to talk to their puppets and stooges.”

“For years and years we refused that condition, because to accept it would be, again, effectively surrender,” Crocker said. “And in the context of that surrender, handing over the country to the party with whom we’re negotiating, the Taliban. Because that’s what you’ve got if the government is not in the room.” 

Crocker said that engaging in negotiations without the Afghan government effectively tells the Taliban that the U.S “is done” in Afghanistan and is now discussing “dress-up conditions.” 

A commitment from the Taliban that it wouldn’t allow terrorist attacks from Afghanistan is a major point of the peace talks. But without a U.S. presence in the country, Crocker raised the question of what army would enforce the Taliban’s observance of any commitments. 

“They will agree to anything right now, they will sign anything right now, because they know once we’re gone, we’re not coming back, and they can do whatever they want to do,” Crocker said.

When President Donald Trump laid out his policy in the summer of 2017, Crocker said be believes the part he got right relates to his views that when it comes to Afghanistan, the U.S. needs to talk about conditions, not calendars. His predecessor, Barack Obama, stopped the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq and Afghanistan at the end of his second term. Crocker said Trump had so far taken advantage of that hand-off but has become impatient. 

The war has been unpopular — “we have been there too long, it has cost too much, it’s never gonna work right” — but withdrawing forces gives the advantage to other forces with more patience, Crocker said. And the Taliban and al-Qaeda of today are “tougher, meaner, smarter and more committed” than they were 18 years ago, he said. There were more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan when Crocker was there in 2011 and 2012, and now there are roughly 14,000. Meanwhile, the Taliban doesn’t have a provincial capital or major highway under its full control. The Taliban is “holding their own,” but maintaining a troop commitment is a “cheap enough insurance policy” for U.S. national security, he said.

Afghan officers and civilians, though, are likely demoralized by the U.S. decision to talk to their “existential enemy” without having them in the room, which Crocker said is “setting up the conditions for defeat.” 

Having the Afghan government at the table could potentially change this dynamic, though. Crocker said he can see the possibility of the two coming to terms on some set of issues, moving the conflict toward something more nuanced. But he said this won’t happen without the Afghan government’s involvement. 

“That would make it existential, and it’s pretty clear whose existence is most threatened,” Crocker said. “It would be the Afghan government and the people who have supported this endeavor to build a society that is deeply antithetical to everything the Taliban stands for.” 

Crocker’s lecture was hosted by the Department of International Affairs, the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and the Albritton Center for Grand Strategy at the Bush School of Government & Public Service.

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