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An Afghan Air Force's helicopter rovers near the Afghan Parliament house in Kabul on Aug. 2, 2021.
An Afghan Air Force's helicopter rovers near the Afghan Parliament house in Kabul on Aug. 2, 2021. (Wakil Kohsar, AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — With Taliban forces rapidly seizing territory across Afghanistan and Americans rushing to evacuate the besieged capital, a decorated former diplomat who twice headed the U.S. embassy in Kabul said the United States could have avoided this disastrous coda to its longest war.

Spokane Valley, Wash., native Ryan Crocker arrived in the Afghan capital to reopen the shuttered embassy in January 2002, weeks after the U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime, and returned to serve as ambassador from 2011 to 2012. In an interview with The Spokesman-Review on Friday, Crocker said while the pace of the insurgents' advance has surprised him, the Biden administration should have seen it coming.

"I think the direction was predictable; the trajectory was not," he said. "What President Biden has done is to embrace the Afghan policy of President Trump, and this is the outcome."

After Trump signed off on a withdrawal agreement with the Taliban in February 2020 that excluded the Afghan government, on April 13 Biden announced his administration would withdraw U.S. troops from the Central Asian country by Sept. 11. That symbolic date falls exactly two decades after al-Qaida attacked the United States from its base in Afghanistan, where the Taliban gave the terrorist group safe haven.

During a four-decade career in the Foreign Service that earned him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, Crocker served as U.S. ambassador to six countries, most recently when President Barack Obama called him out of retirement in 2011 to serve as America's top diplomat in Kabul.

In July, Biden accelerated the withdrawal, saying most U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan by the end of August. His administration has said about 650 troops will stay in Kabul to protect the embassy, with no combat role, but on Thursday the State Department said 3,000 troops would return to the country to partially evacuate the embassy as Taliban forces close in on the capital, and Biden increased that number to 4,000 on Saturday.

Since Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal in April, Taliban insurgents have overrun much of the country, taking control of key border crossings and most provincial capitals. As of Saturday, the Taliban controlled roughly two-thirds of Afghanistan's territory, according to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a foreign policy think tank.

Crocker said the rapid collapse of Afghan security forces, in which the U.S. government has invested roughly $83 billion to train and equip since 2001, is largely due to cratering morale and the loss of U.S. air power.

"We've spent the last almost two years delegitimizing the Afghan government and its security forces," he said. "It has destroyed the morale of the government and certainly of its security forces."

While the U.S. troop level declined from about 12,000 in March 2020 to roughly 3,500 when Biden announced the withdrawal in April, Crocker said even that limited presence gave Afghan allies symbolic and practical support.

By cutting the Afghan government out of the peace talks, while agreeing to terms that included the release of up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners, Crocker said the U.S. government "effectively sided with the Taliban" in the eyes of Afghan forces, who have reportedly deserted in large numbers.

"It is not exactly a climate in which these young troopers can be reasonably expected to hold that line, having been sold out by us," he said.

Despite that indignity, Crocker said Afghan security forces largely did what the U.S. government asked of them and maintained garrisons throughout the country, but those deployments were only viable with the help of U.S. airstrikes. The predictable collapse of Afghan forces without that air support, he said, suggests "a total lack of coordinated, post-withdrawal planning on our part."

"That's why this is all so sad," he said. "It is a self-inflicted wound."

The administration's special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, arrived in Qatar on Monday to press Taliban representatives to halt their offensive and ask diplomats from other countries in the region not to recognize a Taliban government without a peace deal.

But Crocker said the Islamist group cares far less about diplomatic relations than it does about the idea that it has defeated the world's strongest military, a narrative he fears will embolden other Islamist militants around the world.

"We're going to pay for that for a long time to come, and that's why it is insane — just idiotic — to think that we can tell the Taliban that if they don't stop taking over territory and play nice, the international community will withhold recognition and support," he said. "The Taliban really doesn't care, because they've got something far more valuable."

Crocker said he also worries the Taliban could again harbor terrorist groups, while U.S. intelligence agencies will be less capable of tracking threats in the country after the withdrawal.

"We have seen this movie before," he said. "This would be the Taliban of the 1990s that gave safe haven to al-Qaida, except they're meaner and tougher than they were then because of what they've been through."

Khalilzad began his role under the Trump administration in 2018 and shepherded the negotiations that led to the U.S.-Taliban deal in 2020. Crocker said Biden's decision to retain the veteran diplomat was unusual and signaled he intended to stick with his predecessor's approach to Afghanistan.

"By keeping the envoy of the previous administration, he was keeping the policy of the previous administration," he said. "That's how these things work."

In addition to evacuating embassy staff and other Americans, the 4,000 additional troops who began arriving in Kabul on Friday are charged with evacuating Afghans who have worked for the U.S. government and are now being targeted by the Taliban. The White House has said it will take thousands of Afghans who have applied for the Special Immigrant Visa program to safe locations outside the country, but that daunting effort is in even greater jeopardy with most of the country under Taliban control.

Crocker said the U.S. government should move those Afghans out of the country quickly and "sort out the red tape later."

"But even with all of that, I'm afraid a lot of people are going to die," he said. "As the Taliban moves into different cities and towns, they've got their hit list. So it's going to be messy, it's going to be incomplete and more people are going to die, but we've got to make our best possible effort."

While Trump spurned international alliances and advocated a more insular U.S. foreign policy, the Biden administration has sought to reassert a leadership role on the global stage. As a senator, Biden chaired the Foreign Relations Committee and was the first U.S. lawmaker to visit Kabul when the embassy reopened in 2002, but Crocker said Biden's haste in leaving Afghanistan has made him question the president's leadership.

"I'm left with some grave questions in my mind about his ability to lead our nation as commander-in-chief," Crocker said. "To have read this so wrong — or, even worse, to have understood what was likely to happen and not care."

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community.

(c)2021 The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.)

Visit The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, Wash.) at www.spokesman.com

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