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U.S.-Taliban Talks: Afghan Government Wasn't In The Room, Crocker Says


The war in Afghanistan has lasted almost 17 years. So the question now - could new talks about peace talks bring that war to an end? The U.S. has reportedly met with the Taliban to discuss the possibility of peace talks. U.S. officials haven't commented on these negotiations, but they did say a senior State Department official for the Afghan region - her name is Alice Wells - was in Doha last week. Taliban officials say they met with her. And former military officials have been talking with the Taliban, including retired Army Colonel Chris Kolenda, who spoke with NPR's All Things Considered this week.


CHRIS KOLENDA: I think all sides are starting to recognize that there is no sort of decisive victory, if you will. And so the United States is really smart by engaging in talks because there are a couple of ways that you win wars. First is you force the enemy to surrender. Second is you create a peace agreement that ensures that your interests are taken care of. And the Trump administration has the potential to begin a peace process that results in our interests in Afghanistan being protected.

MARTIN: But not everyone thinks U.S. diplomats should be sitting down with the Taliban. Ryan Crocker was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, and he's held a number of high-level diplomatic positions. And I spoke with him yesterday in our Washington, D.C., studios.

Ambassador Crocker, thanks for coming in.

RYAN CROCKER: Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: So as you know, there have been peace talks before - at least peace talks about peace talks. Is this moment different?

CROCKER: Rachel, it is different, not, I think, in a positive way for the United States - certainly not for the government of Afghanistan. These talks apparently took place without the Afghan government being present. That's a huge deal because the Taliban has long insisted that they are ready to talk to us but not with the illegitimate - their term - Afghan government in the room. They got what they wanted. It will further delegitimize the Afghan government. So this may lead somewhere. I don't think it's going to lead anywhere good for the Afghan government itself.

MARTIN: So if ultimately, the Taliban wants the U.S. out, is it not good for the Taliban to sit down with the U.S. government first to negotiate how they would move forward in peace talks before bringing in the Afghan government?

CROCKER: Not at all. What it does is put the Taliban really on a - if not a legal plane with the United States, certainly symbolically. They are talking about the American withdrawal and the circumstances of that withdrawal. We are there at the invitation of the Afghan government. They're not in the room. So if we withdraw, to whom do we hand this over to, the Taliban? That's the symbol we've got out there now. That's what the country is seeing, that the Taliban is their future because that's who the Americans are talking to, not the government in Kabul.

MARTIN: Have you heard, from any of your sources or people you know who are still there, how the Afghan government has responded to this, or, based on your educated opinion, how they might be responding to being left out of these negotiations?

CROCKER: Well, they were certainly informed that we were going to do this, proceeding...

MARTIN: So it wasn't secret from them.

CROCKER: Well, here we are on NPR. It's...

MARTIN: But they knew what was happening in advance?

CROCKER: Yes, they did. And President Ghani, I'm sure, said - well, you know, thank you for telling me. Go ahead. But he is in a very, very difficult position right now to see, side-by-side, stories in the media that say U.S. talking to the Taliban, U.S. is contemplating advice to the Afghan government to pull its troops out of rural areas and concentrate on the cities - in effect, to cede the ground.

You know, look. These conflicts only end through negotiation. But who's at the table and the timing is critical. I think the Taliban won this round. They're on a roll. We are ceding ground. The Afghan government is ceding ground. So this is neither the time nor the interlocutors that you would want on the table to look for a negotiated settlement that is going to be good for the government of Afghanistan and for the Afghan people.

MARTIN: I mean, can you even imagine what that negotiated settlement looks like? I mean, is it even plausible to imagine some kind of power-sharing agreement between a democratically elected central government in Kabul and the Taliban?

CROCKER: That's a great point, Rachel. In a word, no. And that's something else to keep in mind. Whatever comes out of this - again, I expect nothing good - it's going to be a long time in unspooling, in part for the reasons you just said. We and the Afghan government, for example, are making a major point out of empowerment for women and girls, female education. We have urged that women play a larger role in Afghan society, in Afghan governance, in the Afghan economy. Really hard to see how these talks are going to advance that point.

MARTIN: Then how do you move forward? It has been 17 years since this war began. Afghans want it to end. The Americans want it to end. The Taliban wants it to end. What is the way forward?

CROCKER: Well, I think, first, you've got to be in a better position on the ground than we and the Afghan government is now for these talks to make sense.

MARTIN: That means expansion of the U.S. footprint along with Afghan security forces?

CROCKER: It means, how do we ensure the Afghan security forces are manned, equipped and supplied to hold ground against the Taliban?

MARTIN: And they're still not after all this time?

CROCKER: Well, it's pretty hard to build an army when you're in the middle of an insurgency. What the Afghans have going for them is, they are tough; they are resilient; they're committed. The bad news is, of course, that applies to both sides of the line - to the Taliban as well as the government. What this reminds me of more than anything - I'm old enough to remember it - the Paris talks over Vietnam. What those were were the beginning of a long surrender. And that's what I'm worried about now, that simply by getting into the room with us, the Taliban feel they have scored a major political victory. We're there. They're there. The Afghan government is not. I worry that I'm going to see what we saw in Vietnam except with far more grave social consequences.

MARTIN: Ryan Crocker was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. Ambassador, thanks so much.

CROCKER: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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