Anti-al Qaeda plan for Afghanistan between ‘crazy and stupid,’ says ambassador

If we didn’t already suspect that the incoming Obama Administration’s State Department has its work cut out for it, Ambassador Ronald Neumann has some serious news from the front lines. The candid diplomat comes to Denver Dec. 10 to talk about America’s struggle with diplomacy and democratic reform challenges in the Middle East.

Neumann’s eye-opening experience comes from spending the bulk of his foreign service career posted in some of the world’s most dangerous hot spots — Iraq, Afghanistan, Algeria and Bahrain, where the U.S. Navy’s Middle East operations are based — and serving as the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East Affairs after the first Gulf War, among many positions over a 37-year career.

In an Oct. 28 PBS Frontline report “The War Briefing” Neumann, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, said in a follow-up interview:

There’s a certain tendency to try to grab lessons and apply them in cookie-cutter fashion. There are some principles, but there are very few specific lessons from Iraq that you could move to Afghanistan. …

When people talk about the whole business of the Anbar Awakening, that is not something you want to try to replicate in Afghanistan. …

Anbar is a decentralized group of people who have been opposed to the government, who are not yet in the government, and we’re not sure if they’re going to be or if they’re going to have a civil war when we leave.

There’s nothing similar in Afghanistan. And if you were to try to build on local militias, you would be returning to the past that fragmented the country. What brought the Taliban to prominence in large part was the fractious nature of local Afghan militia groups fighting with each other. … So to say that the model is one that we’re not even sure yet won’t dissolve into civil war … and that’s how you’re going to bring peace against the Taliban is some place between crazy and stupid.

Neumann, who now leads the American Academy of Diplomacy, will be in Denver next week to discuss his new book, Diplomacy in Crisis: The Real Cost of Letting Diplomacy Decline, hopefully with the same candor offered to Frontline. Tickets to the Institute for International Education luncheon are available now online or call the Events line at 303.837.0788 x 10.

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Wendy Norris

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