Former ambassador stops by Pacific University to reflect
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald Neumann offered reflections and answered questions this week at a virtual event hosted by Pacific University.
Neumann, who first visited Afghanistan in 1967 when his father was ambassador, stressed the need to keep negotiating with the Taliban — now the rulers of what they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan — since the U.S. military left the country after two decades of war.
"We have all sorts of vested interests like women's rights or education or different types of social justice. It will be very hard to maintain domestic support going ahead, and anyone vested in one particular issue is going to be unhappy with what they do get done," Neumann said. "But there are ways to talk to the Taliban, and we should keep as many as possible of those open, and once we start to have an active relationship, we need people on the ground, diplomats in Kabul to have a better idea of what is going on."
Neumann, 77, was ambassador to Bahrain and Algeria before serving as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. Before starting a career in the foreign service, he was an infantry officer in Vietnam.
On the video conference, he criticized past U.S. efforts to force elections in countries it had recently invaded, such as Afghanistan in 2004 and Iraq in 2005.
"We continue to be involved in democracy work all over the world. And if we're supposed to be making democracy a key element of our foreign policy, then maybe there are some lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq and Vietnam and these other places," Neumann said. "One of my lessons is don't start trying to do democracy through big national elections and do it so fast. There are a lot of reasons why going quickly to elections doesn't work."
Neumann called the Biden administration's rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan an unnecessary catastrophe that will harm the United States' international reputation for years to come.
He also criticized both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations, accusing them of never keeping a plan for Afghanistan for longer than two or three years and of withholding key information from the press and public.
"As the war got worse, first (Barack) Obama and then (Donald) Trump and then (Joe) Biden were all basically classifying all kinds of information that used to be and should be in the public domain," Neumann said. "You start classifying casualty figures and combat incidents, and you don't put out information on desertion rates in the Afghan army, that's a lot of critical information that should have been available to the public that administrations in both parties had a tendency to hide."
Pacific philosophy professor Katharine Loevy, who organized the event, said she's hoping to follow up the virtual appearance by the former ambassador with an event featuring a scholar from Afghanistan.
In class this week, Loevy's students discussed Neumann's reflections on negotiating and the philosophies of Renaissance-era Italian diplomat Niccolò Machiavelli.
"One of the things he said that had an impact was about how you negotiate with whomever you want or need something from. He emphasized negotiating not because you agree with them, but because they have what you need," Loevy said. "For me, I'm used to evaluating the Taliban from a perspective of social justice and how they oppress women and girls — but this is an ambassador's perspective about trying to get things done no matter what."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.