Ryan Crocker sounds very far from Washington — and not only because he is talking over an uncertain phone line from Kabul.
The U.S. ambassador is one of the great protagonists of the post-9/11 era, serving more than half of the last 10 years in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. Along with Gen. David Petraeus, he rescued the United States from catastrophe in Iraq four years ago; now he is trying to repeat the feat in Kabul. He finds himself repeating many of the same phrases: "It's hard. It's going to go on being hard. But it's not hopeless," he said in our conversation last week, before Tuesday's attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
And: "The key is strategic patience, which is hard for us Americans. We need it here, we needed it in Iraq and we certainly need it with Pakistan."
But is anyone still listening? Republicans and Democrats have been talking about the wars against al-Qaida and the Taliban as an enterprise in need of rapid closure — if not a monumental folly.
"Ten years later, we look at the situation, and we say, we have 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. This is not about nation building in Afghanistan. This is about nation building at home," Jon Huntsman said in last week's GOP presidential debate, echoing President Barack Obama's words in June, when he announced a faster troop withdrawal than Petraeus recommended.
"Our core is broken. We are weak," Huntsman went on, sounding a lot like George McGovern in 1972. "I say we've got to bring those troops home." Remarkably, none of the other seven Republicans on the stage at the Ronald Reagan presidential library challenged that conclusion.
Crocker gets it. "I know Americans are tired of war. I'm kind of tired, too," he said. In his years of service he has endured rocket fire; verbal barbecuing by congressional committees on national television; and endless, painstaking parleys with prickly, unpredictable characters such as Nouri al-Maliki and Hamid Karzai. He's 62; he tried to retire once, after Iraq, but was coaxed back into service by Obama and Petraeus after U.S. relations with Karzai deteriorated to the breaking point.
But Crocker has two simple points to make. First: Wanting the war against al-Qaida to be over doesn't mean that it can be ended soon. "There are still a lot of nasty and brutally determined al-Qaida figures out there," he said. "I do not think that al-Qaida is out of business because they lost Osama bin Laden. Not by a long shot."
The second hard truth is that al-Qaida's future is inextricably linked with that of Afghanistan and the Taliban. "Al-Qaida is not in Afghanistan because we are," Crocker said. "If we decide to go home before it is ready, you could see a Talibanization of this country and a return to the conditions that existed pre-9/11. You will see regenerated al-Qaida getting back into the global jihad business."
So: "We have got to get it right," he said. Can we? Despite the prevailing mood in Washington, Crocker thinks so. The situation he found in Kabul this summer, he said, is considerably better than what he saw in 2002, when he helped set up the first post-Taliban government.
"It's better than I thought," he said. "The biggest problem in Kabul is traffic. Out in the provinces, even in Kandahar, you see traffic jams there. Kabul is a more livable city by far than the Baghdad I left in 2009." And not only for Americans: Afghan school enrollment has risen from 1 million to 8 million — and from 0 to 2.5 million girls. Life expectancy has increased by 20 years in the past decade.
The Taliban, says Crocker, is weary of war, too. "The Afghans and our own soldiers are picking up a lot of signals that the Taliban foot soldiers are tired of it all, and ready to put their guns down if they can be assured that they can be fully reintegrated" into society. The ambassador is dubious that the largest Taliban factions, whose leaders are in Pakistan, will be ready to seriously negotiate with Karzai's government, or with the United States, anytime soon.
But the enemy fighting force can be substantially reduced. The Afghan army, despite its own defections, is still growing. That leaves the biggest challenge — building workable Afghan political institutions by the time Karzai's term in office, and the U.S.-NATO military mission, come to an end in 2014.
That is what Crocker is there to work on, along with a strategic partnership deal between Afghanistan and the United States that would extend beyond 2014. Yes, it is an uphill battle. But when this sober stalwart of American diplomacy says it can be done — and that it must be — he sounds a good deal more credible than Jon Huntsman, or Barack Obama.
Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor for the Washington Post.
© 2011 Washington Post