Ryan Crocker: “Why Biden’s Lack of Strategic Patience Led to Disaster”

From a guest essay in the New York Times by Ryan C. Crocker headlined “Why Biden’s Lack of Strategic Patience Led to Disaster”:

Mr. Crocker served as ambassador to Afghanistan under President Barack Obama.

As Americans, we have many strengths, but strategic patience is not among them. We have been able to summon it at critical times such as the Revolutionary War and World War II, where Congress did not threaten to defund the war effort if it wasn’t wrapped up by 1944….But our patience is not the norm. And it certainly has not been on display in Afghanistan as the world watched the Taliban storm into Kabul.

As the enormity of the events in Afghanistan this past week sink in, the questions start. How did this happen? How could we not have foreseen it? Why didn’t Afghan security forces put up a fight? Why didn’t we do something about corruption? The list goes on. There is one overarching answer: our lack of strategic patience at critical moments, including from President Biden. It has damaged our alliances, emboldened our adversaries and increased the risk to our own security. It has also flouted 20 years of work and sacrifice.

The United States’ objective in Afghanistan has always been clear: to ensure that Afghan soil is never again used to plan attacks against the American homeland. It was not about nation building as an end in itself, or building a new democracy, or even regime change. The message from the Bush administration to the Taliban after 9/11 made this clear: If you hand over Al Qaeda leadership, we will leave you alone. The Taliban chose to fight instead. Once the Taliban were defeated, our fundamental mission of ensuring that Afghanistan was never again the base for an attack on the United States did not change. But the means to that end became much more complex. And the development of those means would require patience.

When I arrived at Bagram Air Base in January 2002 to take charge of our reopened embassy, Afghanistan had nothing: essentially no government, no institutions, no army, no police — just a yawning vacuum, and vacuums in the greater Middle East tend to be filled by actors who do not wish us well. Hamid Karzai had arrived in Kabul just a few days before me as chairman of the Afghanistan Interim Authority. He and I spent a lot of time together in those initial weeks. He never seemed discouraged by the enormity of the task in front of him. He did not hesitate to make decisions, many good, some not so much. He had a vision of a stable and secure Afghanistan that threatened no one. It would be a long process, but he said he had the patience for it.

So did we, at least initially. Helping Afghans create a stable, open society could also be the best way to further our own national security objectives. This concept had strong bipartisan support on the Hill, as a wave of congressional visitors to Kabul would attest. The first of that wave was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joe Biden. We visited a girls’ school that had just opened thanks to U.S.A.I.D. Chairman Biden was a strong supporter. He understood the importance of societal change, and he understood that it takes time and requires patience….

Clearly, there were also problems, chief among them corruption. Karzai, and later President Ashraf Ghani, presided over governments where corruption was rampant. When vast resources are poured into a country without established institutions and rule of law, corruption is likely to be a significant byproduct. This is not to excuse corrupt officials. It is to recognize the ubiquity of the problem and our role in it….

And that returns me again to the central theme: time and patience. As our own history attests, societal change is a slow process….

I recall the comment attributed to a captured Taliban fighter from a number of years ago: You Americans have the watches, but we have the time. Sadly that view proved accurate — the Taliban outlasted us and our impatience. After the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan at the hands of U.S.-trained and armed mujahedeen in 1989, training that was facilitated by Pakistan, we decided we were done. We could see the Afghan civil war coming — the only thing holding the disparate Afghan groups together was a common enemy. But that was not our problem — we were leaving. On the way out, we stopped helping Pakistan in a key way: We ended security and economic assistance because of its nuclear weapons program, something we’d exempted before. So Pakistan, in its own narrative, went from being the most allied of allies to the most sanctioned of adversaries. That is why Pakistan threw its support to the Taliban when they started gaining ground in the 1990s: It could end a dangerous conflict along Pakistan’s own unstable borders.

And that is why a decade later after 9/11, Pakistan welcomed the return of the United States — and U.S. assistance. It would work with us against Al Qaeda. But we soon learned that the Taliban were a sticky matter. I was ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007. I pushed Pakistani officials repeatedly on the need to deny the Taliban safe havens. The answer I got back over time went like this: “We know you. We know you don’t have patience for the long fight. We know the day will come when you just get tired and go home — it’s what you do. But we aren’t going anywhere — this is where we live. So if you think we are going to turn the Taliban into a mortal enemy, you are completely crazy.”

We have again validated their skepticism.

The American disaster in Afghanistan that Mr. Biden’s impatience brought about is not a disaster just for us. It has also been a huge boost for the Taliban, whose narrative now is that the believers, clad in the armor of the one true faith, have vanquished the infidels. That is resonating around the world, and certainly next door in Pakistan where the T.T.P. — the Pakistani Taliban, which seeks the overthrow of their government — has certainly been emboldened, as have Kashmiri militant groups created by Pakistan but that threaten Pakistan itself as well as India. Mr. Biden’s strategic impatience has given a huge boost to militant Islam everywhere….

It was not only the current president showing impatience. President Donald Trump announced that peace talks would convene in Qatar between the United States and the Taliban. But those took place without the Afghan government. We had caved on a longstanding Taliban condition. We therefore delegitimized the government we had pledged to support. The Taliban did eventually allow government representatives into the room, but the talks went nowhere. As that painful process unfolded, we added injury to insult, forcing the Kabul government to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners.

That didn’t matter to Mr. Trump. He was done with patience and just wanted out, whatever the consequences. He reached an agreement with the Taliban for that complete withdrawal, but left office before he could execute it.

Enter Mr. Biden. To my shock, he embraced Mr. Trump’s Afghanistan policy. We have betrayed our promises to interpreters, women and children, and others who are now trapped in an Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban. I fear many will lose their lives because of Mr. Biden’s impatience. We had their backs. Until Mr. Biden decided we didn’t. They will pay for it….

Now, the Taliban hold all the cards. They will determine whether evacuations through the Kabul airport can proceed. And whatever happens next, the image of this American capitulation is already etched indelibly in the world’s imagination. It is that U.S. Air Force C-17 taxiing for takeoff from Kabul surrounded by a desperate Afghan mob. Seconds later, at least one man falls to his death from the plane’s wheel well. It is eerily reminiscent of the people who jumped from the World Trade Center on 9/11 rather than face death by fire. What a tragic and painful circle it closes two decades later.

Ryan C. Crocker was a United States ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, Kuwait and Lebanon, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations.



  1. Mimi Stratton says

    Mr. Crocker, you are the diplomat known as the most closely involved in getting the United States into the endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You’ve been greatly rewarded for your complicity in furthering the industrial-military complex. Yet those who know you best, who have worked with you, are not impressed. I have read the SIGAR’s (Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction) report on your activities to abet, keep secret, further corruption in Afghanistan regarding the theft of $1Trillion from the Kabul Bank in 2010-11, and silence any voices in the US Embassy who wanted to get the word out. I encourage others to read The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, available via The Washington Post. Key insiders reveal in this document what went wrong during the longest armed conflict in US History. But in today’s WaPo OpEd, Sunday, August 22, 2021, Ryan Crocker argues for staying in Afghanistan longer. He blames Joe Biden and the American people for “not being patient enough”.

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