Interview: Ambassador Ryan Crocker

BOSTON — Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker’s penchant for searing honesty even when it's not what the White House wants to hear earned him a nickname that has stuck.

“Mr. Sunshine.”

That’s how President George W. Bush sarcastically referred to the veteran diplomat when Crocker emerged as one of the very few to candidly and convincingly inform the White House of the dark clouds over Iraq when he arrived as the chief diplomat there in March 2007.

And now Crocker, who has recently retired after five ambassadorial postings in hot spots including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, has a pretty bleak forecast as well for President Barack Obama as he pulls together his team of generals and advisers to deliberate on the best way forward in Afghanistan.

“The president has to decide what his goals are. The hand wringing could not have come at a worse time,” Crocker said in an interview with GlobalPost last week.

In an interview Friday while he was visiting Harvard University for a forum at the Kennedy School of Government, Crocker painted a situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan in which he said the Taliban is strong and resurgent.

And in which the Obama administration is in a race against time to execute a successful counterinsurgency campaign.

He said the Taliban leadership has managed to reconstitute itself in surprising and dramatic ways on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The brazen attacks by the Taliban on the Pakistani police and intelligence community in the last two weeks are evidence of that. And the Pakistani military’s offensive against the Taliban in Waziristan which got underway over the weekend is a fateful battle, he added.

Because of that, Crocker said, the Obama administration needs to be more decisive about its path forward and stick to it before the Taliban has any more time to consolidate its hold on large swaths of both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The wavering of the Obama administration in Afghanistan is a sign of a weakness in a region that has seen this tendency in America before.

A failure of “strategic patience” is historically one of America’s greatest weaknesses in the Middle East and Central Asia, Crocker explained.

“Our allies have come to fear it and our adversaries have come to count on it,” he added.

That need for patience was the thrust of Crocker’s historic testimony before Congress with General David Petraeus in 2007 when the two men called for and received more time, more troops and more patience with the surge of troops in Iraq.

By most estimates, that patience succeeded in helping the Iraqis find the stability their country needed for the U.S. to begin to draw down its forces.

The same kind of approach is needed now in Afghanistan, he said.

“I certainly wouldn’t suggest you take what was done in Iraq and do it in Afghanistan. But certain principles do apply,” he said, adding, “and strategic patience is one of them.”

Crocker has the lean, sinewy shape and focused intensity of a marathon runner, which in fact he is. He’s been jogging about five miles miles every morning through war zones for more than a quarter century.

He has served as ambassador in Lebanon (1990-1993) , Kuwait (1994-1997), Syria (1998-2001) and he opened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul following the fall of the Taliban in 2002 and then served in Pakistan (2004-2007) and Iraq (2007-2009.) In January of this year, Crocker was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his nearly 40 years of public service.

The first time I met Crocker he was in his office in Islamabad in 2006 when he was serving as the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan.

He had a tattered U.S. State Department flag framed in his office, the remnants of the flag that hung in his office in the Beirut Embassy during the bombing of 1983, which he narrowly survived.

I had a chance to interview him again in Iraq and to see him in Washington when he provided riveting testimony on Capitol Hill on the situation in Iraq.

For Crocker, the post-9/11 world is indeed a marathon.

It is truly “the long war,” as it is sometimes called.

And the Obama administration would be wise to listen to the advice of this retired foreign officer, who is widely regarded as perhaps one of the best diplomats the United States has had in the modern Middle East, now as it navigates its way forward in Afghanistan at this pivotal moment.

“The original strategy that was laid out in March by the president seemed wise. It was a broad counterinsurgency with a significant civilian component,” Crocker said, wondering why Obama is second-guessing and wavering in that plan.

Clearly, Obama is being tested right now in Afghanistan, particularly by the military establishment which, through General Stanley McChrystal, is trying to impose a penchant to escalate the conflict and add at least 40,000 more troops.

That would be on top of the 68,000 U.S. troops that are in Afghanistan now after the 21,000 troop-increase in March.

With the caution of a diplomat but the certainty of a man with a great deal of experience, Crocker seemed to be supporting the original Obama game plan and cautioning against a troop increase in Afghanistan.

Crocker said the U.S. will also have to be tough on the current President Hamid Karzai and support a run-off in the contested results of the election, which has been marred by widespread allegations of fraud.

There can be no successful counterinsurgency campaign without a legitimate government in place that can provide governance that is “good enough” to give the people faith in the future.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, but there have to be reasonable levels of service and stability,” Crocker said.

Across the border in Pakistan, events unfolding will inevitably impact the situation in Afghanistan.

And Crocker commented on the Pakistani military offensive launched over the weekend against the Taliban in Waziristan.

“I felt at the time I was there that there was the coming clash. And now it’s here,” said Crocker, referring to the Pakistani Taliban’s stepped up attacks against the government.

He said he believed the Pakistani Taliban made a “strategic miscalculation” in going after the police and security establishment in Pakistan.

He added that he did not believe the Taliban attacks would threaten the stability of the Pakistani government. But he said, “I think it is going to be an awfully nasty fight for quite a while.”

At every turn, Crocker offers honesty and wisdom with a steady, earnest, relentless pace.

It is the kind of counsel that might not feel like warm sunshine, but it is definitely the more cool, stark light of truth.

And it’s exactly the kind of assessment the Obama administration needs to find the best way forward.