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In Open Letter, Former U.S. Envoys Criticize Afghan Withdraw Plan

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The U.S. envoy to Afghanistan announced a draft agreement with the Taliban this week. Zalmay Khalilzad wants a trade. The United States would withdraw some of its troops from Afghanistan, and in return, the Taliban would commit to stopping new attacks in Afghanistan. Now the deal goes to President Trump, who would like U.S. troops out. But some former U.S. ambassadors wrote an open letter that this agreement could make things worse. Ronald Neumann signed the letter. He served as ambassador to Afghanistan in the George W. Bush administration, has been back to Afghanistan many times since. Ambassador, welcome to the program.

RONALD NEUMANN: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: What's wrong with this draft agreement?

NEUMANN: We didn't say anything was wrong with this draft agreement. We raised issues that need to be looked at when we know what's in the draft agreement. Remember, we don't know what's in it yet.

INSKEEP: OK. So what I just said is what is believed to be the summary of it, but the details are not available to you or to anybody in the public. That's what you're saying.

NEUMANN: Well, the point of the article was that the deep devil is in the details. Is this a step toward peace? Is this a bolt and run? We simply don't know. There are a few critical things one should look at once we know the details.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's look at worst-case scenarios since that's what you seem to be worried about. What we seem to be looking at here is a partial agreement. It's not a final peace deal. It's not a final peace settlement. But it's an effort to take a step in that direction. What could possibly go wrong?

NEUMANN: (Laughter) Pardon me if I burst out into hysterical laughter in Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: That's OK.

NEUMANN: What could possibly go wrong? If we leave with inadequate support for the Afghan government and it falls apart, there are a great many people who will still fight who have vicious memories of the Taliban. And there is a potential for the country to decline into civil war. People worry about what happens to women, for instance, in a Taliban victory. You can have a worse situation in which there is no Taliban victory, civil war, lots of room for the Islamic State, ISIS, which is in Afghanistan, to expand, lots of room for al-Qaida to grow and expand and begin looking for vengeance. So there are worse possibilities, but we don't know that that's what will happen. We don't know what's in the deal, and we want to find out.

INSKEEP: So your question is how you're going to prevent chaos as some U.S. troops leave. That's one of your big questions.

NEUMANN: That's one. The big question alongside that is how is this agreement related to peace? Khalilzad has said that this is one piece, but we're not just going to leave. We have to see is that true? President Obama, remember, suspended air support for the Afghans for nearly two years. And while he did that, we lost everything we'd gained pretty much in security in the period of the surge. Is President Trump going to repeat President Obama's mistake of short time deadlines unrelated to conditions? Is he going to repeat President Obama's mistake of ending air support for the Afghan army?

INSKEEP: Well, I guess, that does raise the question of whether you think, Ambassador, that the United States is just pursuing the wrong goal. We had James Mattis, the retired Marine general and former defense secretary, on the program the other day. And he is among many who've argued that, really, what we need is a permanent presence in Afghanistan the way we have a permanent troop presence in South Korea. And the idea of trying to make a deal and get everybody out is just obviously not going to work. Would you go that far?

NEUMANN: I'd have to see the deal. I mean, I'm very dubious. I wouldn't say permanent. I think we're going to have to have some people there for some time. I think they well might be somewhat less than what we have. But above all, we need to be able to radiate a sense of what we're going to do for the long term. The Afghans live there. They're going to be around for a long time; so are the Taliban. We have had actually, by my count, nine policies in the 18 years we've been there, which means the United States changes its mind every two years about what it's doing. It's pretty hard for people to make any plans based on that.

INSKEEP: Is it really realistic at all to be talking with the Taliban and not including the Afghan government, which is what the U.S. has been doing?

NEUMANN: It is realistic to start there. It is not realistic to believe you can get peace without including the Afghan government. Absolutely not.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, it's a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

NEUMANN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Ronald Neumann served as ambassador to Afghanistan under President George W. Bush. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.