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Former U.S. Ambassador To Afghanistan Comments On Developing Situation In The Country


Ronald Neumann served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. He joins us now to talk about this moment. Ambassador, welcome to the program.

RONALD NEUMANN: Thank you. And let me just get off of my speakerphone, so you can hear me better. Yes, thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Yes, that's helpful.


(Laughter) Thank you.

CORNISH: We just heard from a woman in Kabul, 29 years old, been enjoying civic life, who is now - in the coming days, could fear a knock on the door from the Taliban. Tell us your reaction as you watch the way the Biden administration is handling the evacuation of U.S. personnel.

NEUMANN: Well, the - I don't know exactly what they're doing on the evacuation of U.S. personnel, but clearly, events have continually outpaced decision-making in the Biden administration since first...

CORNISH: Well, the reason why I ask is because we've heard descriptions from Mike Pompeo and others who have called it panicked. Are you looking at a panicked White House?

NEUMANN: It may be. I don't have enough detail to characterize it. But certainly, they have been reacting very quickly or having to react very quickly to a changing situation. I don't know what is going on in Kabul right now. It sounds - I'm getting calls from Afghan friends and American citizens of Afghan heritage trying to find a way to get out and trying to help them. I don't have good information on how they register for evacuation or how they get out. What we've been - I think there is a first issue of getting Americans out, where I am sure my colleagues in the embassy will do everything they can. I believe, frankly, that we should have been engaged militarily more to prevent the Taliban from coming into Kabul to give us more time, that - I don't know what we've been doing militarily, but doesn't sound like we've been very actively engaged that way. But - yep.

CORNISH: Can we talk about diplomacy then, given your experience? I think earlier this week, you called the peace agreement and that process - busted was the phrase that you used. We're now hearing that the Taliban is trying to hammer out some sort of transfer of power. What are you going to be looking for in the coming days?

NEUMANN: Well, the Taliban are looking for a negotiated surrender, so they don't have a bloody battle in Kabul - perfectly reasonable from their point of view. This has nothing to do with negotiating the kind of peace that we have talked about in the past that would protect women and free institutions, in any event. This is how you surrender with the least loss, which is the point to which the Afghan government has now been driven. But no, there's no - we have no leverage with the Taliban to negotiate much of anything. We've serially given it all away.

CORNISH: So how worried are you about the future of the country's democratic institutions, the ones that have been able to stand these last couple of years?

NEUMANN: I am very worried, not just about democratic institutions - I don't know if you include in that things like civil society, free press, rights of women, journalists, journalism, efforts to build a better judicial system, although that was pretty hampered - but if you include all of those things, I think they will be up for grabs with the Taliban.

KEITH: The Biden administration has essentially indicated they don't see this as all their fault. You know, this was two decades in the making. The Afghan military was trained by the U.S. and equipped. And in a way, it's like President Biden does not want to own this. Do you think that that is possible?

NEUMANN: Short answer is no. The long answer is you need to distinguish between the decision to withdraw, which I didn't like but is arguably correct, and the manner of implementation, of execution of that decision, which has been an absolute disaster from beginning to end. They could have taken more time. They had no plan how to support the Afghan military that they were leaving. We built an air force that depended on contractors for maintenance and pulled the contractors. Supply system - ditto. And we profoundly shocked the Afghan army and morale by pulling out and pulling our air cover when we trained them. So we have done one thing after another - or failed to do one thing after another which could have provided for a competent execution of a withdrawal policy in a measured way and given some chance, and we have not done it. And so I think this is a - you know, I think Biden owns a big piece of the disaster.

KEITH: Ronald Neumann served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. Thank you so much for joining us.

NEUMANN: You're welcome. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.