Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan (shown here in a file photo from July 2010), says that while he understands Americans' feeling of war fatigue, leaving Afghanistan would have a far worse consequence: "If we think the war is expensive — and it is — it is a lot cheaper than another 9/11."
Since Sept. 11, 2001, no U.S. diplomat has spent more time in more sensitive places than Ryan Crocker. He was ambassador to Pakistan as that country struggled with political turmoil and violence; he was ambassador to Iraq as the U.S. military surge changed the complexion of the war; and now he is ambassador to Afghanistan.
In his current job, he works with an Afghan government that has been in a close partnership with the U.S. since the U.S. military helped drive the Taliban from power a decade ago. But the continued U.S. military presence and the grinding nature of the war has also been a source of friction between the two countries.
As the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks approached, NPR Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne sat down with Crocker in the Afghan capital Kabul.
Renee Montagne: I am going to begin with what people are thinking on this day. As we approach the Sunday anniversary of Sept. 11, I think a lot of people are thinking about where they were. Where were you?
Ryan Crocker: I was on the 8 a.m. US Air shuttle from Reagan [airport] up to LaGuardia [airport].
Montagne: So you were going from Washington to New York?
Crocker: Right. And as we were making our descent into LaGuardia, passing over Manhattan, we could see the smoke coming out of the first tower, and the second tower was hit just as we landed. I was then stuck in traffic on the Queensboro Bridge, and I watched both towers go down. And this is the boarding pass from that flight.
Montagne: This is the boarding pass? It's in a small frame.
Crocker: Little plastic frame, and it has been everywhere I've been since 9/11.
Montagne: I almost need not say it, but it's so unusual that you would be there, flying in at that moment, at that time in history.
Crocker: I guess since 9/11 shaped and changed my life and career in so many ways, to be present, where and when it happened, adds to the process I've been through the past decade.
Montagne: When you say "shaped and changed," people talk about how it changed everything — the attacks on 9/11. For you, personally, how did it change your life?
Crocker: Well, it wasn't my first encounter with terror. I'd been in the embassy in Beirut when it was bombed in 1983, and was still in Lebanon when the Marine barracks went up six months later.
Montagne: And to remind people, how many people died?
Crocker: Oh, 241 [U.S. service personnel], 16 Americans at the embassy. But again, life started changing for me within days after 9/11. I spent Christmas at home, the day after Christmas, was told to get on a plane and reopen the embassy [in Kabul]. And I got on a plane and reopened the embassy here in the beginning of January 2002.
Montagne: So between Sept. 11 and today, you have been in some of the key places in the region: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and then on to Iraq during the surge, where you partnered, if you will, with Gen. David Petraeus. What do you say to Americans who are so weary of this 10-year war — and also the hundreds of billions of tax dollars that have been sunk into it — what do you say to those people who just want out?
Crocker: What I say in the case of Afghanistan is, you know, this is where 9/11 came from. We're engaged with the same adversary that gave shelter and space to al-Qaida to plan those attacks — the Taliban. And the Taliban, in the intervening 10 years, has not become any kinder or gentler. So, if we decide we're tired, we want to go home, without having established the conditions for a stable, secure Afghanistan, the Taliban will be back. And they will bring al-Qaida back with them. The reason al-Qaida isn't here now is because we are.
I know people are tired of this war. I'm tired of this war. I've been deployed for five years since 9/11, going on two more. But, if we think the war is expensive — and it is — it is a lot cheaper than another 9/11.
Montagne: But what do you say to people who say there's not, or haven't been, very many al-Qaida in this country for a long time, and they've moved on. What evidence do you have, or indication that you have, that they'll regroup and come back here?
Crocker: Again, it's a complex war that has to be fought on a number of fronts. There's al-Qaida in North Africa, remnants of al-Qaida still in Iraq. But al-Qaida central, in my judgment, is on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Killing [Osama] bin Laden was, of course, a major blow to them, and the new No. 2 didn't last very long in his position. [Atiyah al-Rahman was reported killed in a drone strike in the Pakistani trial region of Waziristan in late August.]
Montagne: Which brings us to Pakistan. You were the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007. Pakistan is generally understood to be a key to any sort of reconciliation with the Afghan Taliban. From your time there, what would it take for Pakistan to give up what is generally thought to be their position, and that is, an unstable Afghanistan is good for Pakistan until the point at which they can control what's happening here, that they will have some power over who's running Afghanistan, as they did the Taliban back in the '90s.
Crocker: I think what they want to see is a stable, secure Afghanistan that does not in any way threaten them. But I don't think they want to see a weak Afghanistan that can be exploited by who knows which groups, that could be dangerous to them.
Montagne: What is "friendly" to Pakistan? Why aren't they urging everyone to the negotiating table, especially the Afghan Taliban that they've been protecting for the last 10 years?
Crocker: And don't I wish they would. Yes, we have made exactly that point, as have the Afghans. We have mechanisms for Afghans and Pakistanis to talk to each other. I mean, ultimately, you can't kill your way out of an insurgency. There will have to be a political resolution at the end of the day. That's what the Afghan government is seeking. We need Pakistan's cooperation to make that happen.
Montagne: What is the state of the negotiations for American military staying here? How would you describe what is being worked on?
Crocker: There are talks under way in Washington between an Afghan team and ourselves on a strategic partnership document. We have also agreed that, as you know, by the end of 2014, Afghanistan will have full responsibility for security throughout the country. What is not yet determined is whether Afghanistan will desire a military presence after 2014.
Montagne: Would that be desirable?
Crocker: It's too soon to tell. One thing, though, that I can tell you is that we do not seek, nor do the Afghans desire, any permanent U.S., or other foreign military bases, in this country. If there were to be a follow-on presence of some sort, it would not be permanent, and it would pose no threat to any of Afghanistan's neighbors.