Washington’s foreign policy elite loves to mock the overuse of the cliché “graveyard of empires,” but it seems as though the last decade of our increasingly failed bid in Afghanistan is littered with lackluster epitaphs for American generals, envoys and diplomats.
In other words, they come, they go, and Afghanistan still stands as a paradox and a plague on our high foreign policy aspirations. The sands of time shift ever so slightly, enough for the next head full of steam to thunder out there like an iron belly engine (only to find that, like the others, the tracks only go so far).
The latest, of course, is Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who is leaving his post as early as July. Gen. John Allen, current commander of U.S. and ISAF (International Security Assistance Forces) in Afghanistan, will also be leaving, it was announced May 15, as well as Cameron Munter, U.S. ambassador to Pakistan. All three leave records of little renown (complete with shifting goal posts and neon question marks) and earlier than expected. Crocker exits after only one year on the job, Munter less than two and Allen, perhaps a record, announced his departure after only eight months on the job.
Referring to the similarly short reigns of Gens. David McKiernan, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, Spencer Ackerman of Wired’s Danger Room noted wryly of Allen’s early promotion to head the U.S. European Command, which will take him far away from the battlefield: “Afghanistan war commanders have tenures as long as Spinal Tap drummers,” which if you saw the 1984 mockumentary, that means abruptly and dubiously short.
Allen’s announcement seemed that much more curious in regard to timing: not only was it reported just days before the NATO Summit brokered an agreement to leave troops in Afghanistan until 2014, but after a lengthy and sympathetic Washington Post profile that called Allen the “triage commander,” who was keeping things together ahead of the long withdrawal. It noted Allen’s tactical shift away from ambitious counterinsurgency (oh, the ironies) and toward the exit, “accelerating a handover of responsibility to Afghan security forces.”
It hadn’t anticipated the good doctor would be the first out the door, news that The Washington Post was forced to report a scant three days later.
But perhaps the more interesting meta-story is the disaster we call the diplomatic side of the mission. We’ve been told endlessly that achieving “success” in Afghanistan will take more than just a military solution, in fact that is exactly the tune the incoming Democratic administration was expected to follow when President Obama took office in January 2009. In August 2010, when announcing the end of the “Republican” war in Iraq, he told Americans:
Indeed, one of the lessons of our effort in Iraq is that American influence around the world is not a function of military force alone. We must use all elements of our power —including our diplomacy, our economic strength, and the power of America’s example —to secure our interests and stand by our allies. And we must project a vision of the future that is based not just on our fears, but also on our hopes —a vision that recognizes the real dangers that exist around the world, but also the limitless possibility of our time.
Yet the administration has continued to put the magnitude of its resources and focus on the military side of the equation and the results have been dim. Not only has the so-called civilian surge been a flop (read: Matthew Hoh’s troubling account of his own short time on the civilian side in Afghanistan), but envoys and ambassadors have left at a similarly remarkable rate as the generals, which should indicate to anyone left who is interested that this adventure in Afghanistan is failing all around, and no amount of lionizing press or fancy speeches by Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who has been curiously disconnected from the Afghanistan piece of her massive portfolio from the get-go) is going to rectify it.
Turns out Crocker was just one in a line of diplomats who were put into a mission that was designed to fail, where professional legacies and even personal stamina appeared to wither over time against the perfidious Hamid Karzai, the labyrinth of Kabul’s corruption and always having to take the child’s seat at the military’s table.
Take the appointment of Richard Holbrooke as “super envoy” to Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af-Pak) in January 2009. As President Clinton’s National Security Adviser, Holbrooke had always been lavishly credited as the father and closer of the Dayton Accords that ended the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia (who cares what’s gone on in the former Yugoslavia since). When he prepared to go into Central Asia as Obama’s man, his legend followed — and of course, the monikers, like “bulldozer,” “giant,” and “raging bull.”
At the time, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid called Holbrooke “both charming and aggressive,” and his appointment a “tough signal” to the Afghan and Pakistani governments. But his charms went nowhere and the only tough signal seemed to be to himself, about his own limitations. Karzai didn’t like him and he always seemed to be on the wrong side of either the White House or the military. Gen. McChrystal and his staff mocked him in front of Rolling Stone magazine, which printed the wince-inducing exchange (which later got the general fired) in a broad profile called The Runaway General.
Point is, Holbrooke ended up with zero clout, to the point where there press was asking, “Where’s Dick?”. He died in the job at the age of 69 in December 2010, almost exactly two years after his appointment. His reported last words: “stop this war.”
Meanwhile, it turns out that putting a military man in a diplomatic role wasn’t going to work, either. As Holbrooke was toiling futilely as envoy, retired Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry was serving as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and was having the same, unremarkable effect at his mission.
But unlike Holbrooke, he was much more candid about his disenchantment with the way things were going, and set himself against his former cadres in the brass big-time when in Jan. 2010, the month Holbrooke was hired, The New York Times published two leaked diplomatic cables written by Eikenberry that rebutted point-for-point the efficacy of McChrystal’s counterinsurgency strategy, including the surge of more U.S. troops into the country.
The cables also described Karzai as an unreliable partner, and said Eikenberry did not believe the Afghan security forces in their current state could attempt to take over responsibility for their country as planned in 2013.
A year and a half later, the man who once reportedly told his staff “don’t feel under pressure to always say the glass is half-full when it might be near empty,” left his post, “without brass bands or fanfare.” Like he never was.
Not surprisingly, he was replaced with a confidence man, Ryan Crocker, who trafficked mostly in successful short-term public relations and message management — that is, until he came up to the dark brick wall that is Afghanistan. He previously served as ambassador to Iraq under the Bush Administration where he was once called “a modern Lawrence of Arabia” by USA Today. He also served as ambassador to both Pakistan (2004 — 2007) and Syria (1998-2001).
Crocker’s special relationship with both the military and Iraqi strongman Nouri al Maliki allowed for nice window dressing on the “Surge” and our “ending” of the war in Iraq. His “accomplishments” were all about what became a fairly competent campaign to Band Aid a gaping wound we caused by invading and occupying in the first place. As a result, the U.S. ignores the authoritarian thrust of Maliki’s rule, and Crocker has reaped much of the diplomatic rewards, at least in the press.
Like Holbrooke, Crocker was buoyed by an amount of myth-making, so when he left for Afghanistan, the press gushed that his “reunion” with Gen. Petraeus (who picked up where McChrystal left off) was like bringing back the “dream team.” But he soon found out that he could not cultivate the same illusions with Karzai as he had with Maliki, and Petraeus had his own problems to contend with.
Nonetheless, Crocker stuck close to the U.S. military and was at the ready to play down every bit of bad news, broadening in effect the huge disconnect between what was being told to Congress and the American people back home, and the grim reality on the ground.
As one foreign policy analyst in Washington bluntly wrote to me this week, “In my view Crocker has been a disaster. He did the same crap job he did in Iraq, basically peddling the usual ‘we’re in Afghanistan because of 9/11 BS’ — his public statements were always out of sync with the tone of the Administration back in Washington. To some extent he had an impossible job, but in my view he was pretty lousy at it.”
When 25 people died — including 10 children — in a 20-hour insurgent attack and gun battle on the U.S. embassy in Kabul in September last year, Crocker’s first instinct was to call it “not a very big deal.” Classic Bush damage control, so out of place in a time where Twitter feeds were reflecting every minute some fresh angle and horror from both American and Afghan reporters and analysts on the ground.
“The attacks beginning yesterday afternoon were designed to derail transition… the insurgent attack didn’t succeed, it failed,” he told a news conference in Kabul.
“I’ll grant that they did get an IO [Information Operations] win on this,” he added.
Less than two months ago, insurgents attacked Kabul again and Crocker replied, “The Taliban are very good at issuing statements, less good at fighting.”
Unfortunately “IO” carries tremendous weight in this “battle for hearts and minds” (which would account for the hundreds of millions we put it into strategic communications each year), and the attacks have come amid a year of traumatic IED attacks on our troops, an increase in civilian casualties, continuing corruption and disappointment in the performance of Afghan military and police. No matter — in the face of February riots over the burning of Qurans, and even the shooting of our soldiers by supposed Afghan partners, Crocker, along with outgoing Gen. Allen, were still at the ready with the spin.
“The Taliban did their best to instigate a lot of these (Quran burning) protests,” Crocker told reporters at the time. “They can’t be too happy with how it turned out for them.”
Sure, whatever. All we know, is Crocker is leaving Afghanistan and the Taliban is still there. As Lawrence’s British Empire left Afghanistan, as well as the Soviet Union after it, America will pack up someday too, after billions of dollars and untold more lives lost in the leaving.
Putting on its best face, the State Department issued an email to its personnel last week announcing Crocker’s departure:
Ambassador Crocker’s tenure has been marked by enormous achievements: the Bonn Conference, the conclusion of the Strategic Partnership Agreement, and the two Memoranda of Understanding on detentions and special operations, and the Chicago NATO Summit.
It would seem that serving up such thin gruel is more telling — if not more embarrassing — than saying nothing at all.
“Crocker leaves behind a long list of boasts and macho remarks for historians to quote ironically, but otherwise he turns over the reigns to another State Department drone to plod the US grimly into year twelve,” says Peter Van Buren, who was fired by the State Department after coming out publicly against the department’s war policies in his book, “We Meant Well,” and blog of the same name.
He may have a bone to pick, but Van Buren isn’t saying anything that anyone with a whit of knowledge of the last decade isn’t thinking already, that if this isn’t the “graveyard of empires” then it’s certainly our graveyard of diplomacy and military commands. Crocker is just the latest casualty.
Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos
Read more by Kelley B. Vlahos
- Brother Karzai Leaves Election, Joins Another Ticket – March 10th, 2014
- The Wailing Cassandras Return – February 27th, 2014
- Afghanistan: It’s the Election, Stupid! – February 19th, 2014
- How a CIA Whistleblower Survives Behind Bars – February 9th, 2014
- Jason Leopold Talks Forensic Journalism – February 2nd, 2014