Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Afghanistan, decries “catastrophic” withdrawal

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Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Afghanistan, decries “catastrophic” withdrawal Ambassador Ryan Crocker says “the decision and the execution, and the execution in particular, does not speak to competency.”

Transcript: Ryan Crocker on “Face the Nation,” August 22, 2021

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The following is a transcript of an interview with former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker that aired on Sunday, August 22, 2021, on “Face the Nation.”

MAJOR GARRETT: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION. For more on Afghanistan, we turn to Ryan Crocker, who served as the US ambassador to Afghanistan. Mr. Ambassador, good morning. Earlier this week, you said you had grave concerns about President Biden’s capacity to lead. What specifically did you mean by that?

FORMER US AMBASSADOR TO AFGHANISTAN RYAN CROCKER: What I meant by that, MAJOR, is the way not only how his decision was made to withdraw, but then its execution, which has been so far catastrophic. You know, we’ve got desperate people, American citizens, other Afghans we’ve helped, you name it, doing anything they can to- to get out of Kabul. And we will all remember that- those horrible images of Afghans who had clung to a wheel well on a C17 dropping out of the sky to their deaths. So the execute- the decision and the execution and the execution in particular does not speak to competency.

MAJOR GARRETT: And when you talk about capacity, are you saying anything else outside of what you just articulated, meaning execution and decisions?

AMB. CROCKER: Well, MAJOR, we’ve got to be- we’ve got to be fair here and- and a little bit honest with ourselves. President Biden didn’t create this whole scenario. President Trump did by engaging the Taliban in talks without the Afghan government in the room. That began a process of delegitimization of the state and its security forces. That was a huge contributing factor to where we are now. I mean, that said, President Biden owns it. He- he- he’s taken ownership of the policy. He has taken ownership of the envoy who negotiated this thing. So lots of blame to go around here, but it doesn’t all fall on President Biden.

MAJOR GARRETT: You are deeply familiar with this region and many of the players in the next week. Mr. Ambassador, what are you most afraid of?

AMB. CROCKER: I am afraid that as the Taliban gains more control, as they settle in a bit more, they are going to go after all of those in Afghanistan who have spoken the truth then in the media, who have represented the institutions of this young democracy and certainly those who have helped us directly like the interpreters. I’m very much afraid that this is going to get worse. The chaos may subside, but as it does, I am terribly worried you’re going to see the Taliban start to methodically take care of those they consider their enemies. We will be in no position to help them.

MAJOR GARRETT: Mr. Ambassador, as you’re probably well aware of, many members of Congress, senators and House office members are creating, if you will, satellite state departments, trying to use whatever means they have email, cell phone calls to try to work on behalf of either constituents or those that they have come to know in Afghanistan to get them out. What does that say about the functionality of the current State Department?

AMB. CROCKER: Well, with respect to State Department personnel, I mean, among my heroes are those state people out of the airport right now doing everything they can to make this process work faster and to work better. That said, there are capacity problems. Those on the front lines did not create those problems and are not in a position to fix them. But it’s just incredibly important that we concentrate now on getting those folks out. Look, right as we speak. I am involved in an effort to get a particularly prominent person out of that country before it’s too late. It’s kind of like the Dunkirk evacuation. So it’s again, it’s- it’s a really rough time. It didn’t need to be this way. Look, Mike McCaul, ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and I did a joint op-ed at the beginning of May when we said here’s what the administration needs to do. If they’re going all the way out, which we opposed, you know, they’ve got to have a way to get intelligence capabilities offshore that are going to work and keep our nation safe. They’ve got to take care, obviously, of American citizens. They’ve got to take care of the interpreters. They have to take care of those women and girls who are particularly vulnerable. You know, we put all that out there again three and a half months ago. None of it was acted on.

MAJOR GARRETT: I’m going to give you three countries, China, Pakistan, Russia. Have the events of the last two weeks made America weaker vis a vis those three countries?

AMB. CROCKER: It has created a global crisis, quite frankly. It has emboldened violent Islamic radicals, and I think we’re all going to see the fallout of that, certainly in Pakistan. They championed the Taliban because they felt they had no choice. Well, the Taliban victory, the narrative of defeating the great- the great infidel empowers radicals in Pakistan that they’re going to have to deal with if they can. And that’s a country of 220 million people with nuclear weapons. China has its Uyghur Muslim population in its west. They’re tuned in. They’re- they’re- they’re definitely looking at what happened in Afghanistan. And, of course, the Russians have their own Muslim populations in very violent places in the past, like Chechnya. So they might be doing a little bit of high fiving. But, boy, it’s not going to last because what is happening in Afghanistan isn’t going to stay in Afghanistan. This will be felt around the world.

MAJOR GARRETT: Ryan Crocker, former ambassador to Afghanistan on behalf of the United States government, coming to us from Spokane, Washington. We thank you, sir, very much for your time and expertise. We’ll be right back with the latest on the coronavirus pandemic.

Former Amb to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker: ‘This is not a kinder and gentler Taliban’

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The Taliban, which is now in control of Afghanistan, held its first press conference on Tuesday, with the group’s spokesperson declaring a general amnesty across the country. The takeover comes weeks before US and NATO forces were preparing to fully withdraw from the country by the end of August.

Related: Former warlord Ismail Khan led a militia against the Taliban. He spoke to The World days before Afghans lost the fight.

US President Joe Biden announced on Monday that he stands “squarely behind” his decision to exit Afghanistan. But, many with deep experience in the region are harshly critical of what the president did, and warn of blowback.

Related: 20 years of progress for Afghan women could disappear under Taliban rule

Ryan Crocker, who spent 40 years in the foreign service and served as US ambassador to Afghanistan under President Barack Obama, discussed Biden’s statement and the US’ role in Afghanistan with The World’s host Carol Hills.

Carol Hills: How do you think people received President Biden’s words? Ryan Crocker: People around the world are watching what we do and what we say. They are saying, “Boy, do not partner up with the Americans, do not count on the Americans. They won’t be there in the end and they will blame it all on you.”

What do you make of the Taliban’s announcement today of a nationwide amnesty and a call for women to join the government? OK, they’ve said these pretty things. Let’s see what happens on the ground. Let’s see if they facilitate the evacuation of those who want to get out and not risk their lives under Taliban rule. The Taliban has all the agency here. We gave ours up. We gave it up to them. So, we don’t really decide anything anymore of a security nature. They will decide what they want to do and we will have to react depending on what that is.

What is your reaction to Biden saying, “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves”? Is that a fair assessment? Carol, that is just appalling. Back when I was ambassador, once a week over at the international security force compound would be a brief memorial service to commemorate those who had died in the previous week. And, you know, it was a wrenching ceremony that would have always, sadly, some American troopers and a few others from other allies. Their names would be read and then the Afghan military representative would stand up. He didn’t read any names. He gave a number: “123 last week, 165 this week,” and so it went. So, for the president to say that this is on the Afghan security forces who refused to fight, they have been fighting and dying for their country in unbelievable numbers for more than a decade now. So, Mr. President, you use the phrase “the buck stops here.” You tried to put that on the Afghan security forces. No, sir. The buck stops on your desk.

What specifically do you think President Biden could have done differently to avoid the crisis we’re seeing right now? He could have not taken a rush to the exit. Look, when I was in Kabul as ambassador in 2011, 2012, it was the peak of the surge. We were up to almost 100,000 troopers on the ground in Afghanistan. There was violence from the Taliban, but they didn’t hold any provincial capitals. We steadily drew down our numbers, and then President Trump cut further. And what happened? Well, the Taliban still did not hold any provincial capitals. We were at a status quo point that was not great, but it was workable. There are some problems out there that can’t be fixed, they have to be managed, and I would put Afghanistan into that category. We’re not going to transform it into the shining city on the hill. But we could, and did, demonstrate that with a really minimal number of troops that were not directly involved in combat operations, that the Afghans could get by. The only thing that changed was the Biden decision. That is what pulled the plug on all of this. And then the way it was done has given us what we’ve seen, those awful images out of Kabul airport. So, bad policy decision, bad policy execution, he got both.

Do you think that President Biden should have involved the Afghan government? I mean, he continued the Trump policy of negotiating with only the Taliban. That, of course, was the beginning of this extended train wreck. Caving into that long-standing Taliban demand meant that these were not, never would be, peace negotiations. They were surrender talks. And I was frankly stunned to see President Biden embrace that policy, embrace the Afghan envoy that President Trump had been using and actually pull the plug. I think of all the body blows the Afghan government and its security forces suffered, we administered the most powerful punches against them.

Ambassador Crocker, you were there in 2002, one of the US diplomats arriving in Kabul to reopen the shuttered US Embassy after the Taliban was routed. What was the mission from the get-go? It was about ensuring America’s security, to ensure that Afghan soil would never again be used to plan strikes into the United States of America itself. And, over a period of almost 20 years, I think we did a pretty good job on it. Now, all of that is at risk because of the president’s decisions. What do I mean? Well, the Taliban is back, there they are, roaming the streets of all 34 provincial capitals, now. This is not a kinder and gentler Taliban. These guys are hardened, tough, ruthless. In other words, they’re the guys that brought us 9/11 by sheltering al-Qaeda, and they’re back. Al-Qaeda will be back with them. So, the president, sadly, has re-created the same environment we had just before 9/11. So, the president has really put the band back together. This particular band, of course, attacked our country.

At this point, is there anything the Biden administration can do to make the immediate situation in Afghanistan better? I mean, if you had the president’s ear, what would you tell him to do right now, today? I would tell him to do what, to give them credit, the administration is actually doing: bringing in aircraft, getting obviously our own folks out, but also getting out those tens of thousands of Afghans who risked their lives to support our efforts. Just get people out. We’re all full of recriminations. We’re all pointing our fingers and everybody else. Yeah, that’s going to go on, that’s part of the process. But right now, it’s about individual lives.

Ambassador Crocker, are you in touch with Afghans on the ground? I am. And it is wrenching beyond description, Carol. Like many, many other Americans who served in Afghanistan, we are getting a lot of desperate messages. And it’s just gut-wrenching to to read these text and emails that say, please don’t forget me, the Taliban are here, they’re going to kill me, please get me out. It’s very, very painful.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.