As a career diplomat who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and other Mideast hotspots, and as a former Army infantry officer who fought in Vietnam, Ambassador Ronald Neumann has seen firsthand how American defense and diplomacy can succeed and fail. He’s also seen past U.S. administrations often fail to finish what they started.
Today, as president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, he understands the importance of diplomacy in protecting our national security interests — and the threats that U.S. diplomacy faces from within, as resources and morale at the State Department consistently come under fire from the Trump White House.
For Neumann, this neglect hits close to home, whether in Baghdad or Foggy Bottom. President Trump has not only relegated the U.S. Foreign Service to the sidelines, but has also continued what Neumann says is a failing strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, where Trump is determined to end American involvement in both long-running conflicts.
Ironically, both nations have finally begun making real democratic progress. In October, Afghanistan held long-delayed parliamentary elections. Despite the threat of violence by the Taliban and logistical problems, millions waited hours to cast their votes, including a large number of women. While the Taliban still holds large tracts of territory and regularly stages deadly attacks that have killed thousands of civilians this year, the relatively successful election has sparked tepid hopes that the elusive effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table may finally be gaining steam.
Meanwhile, in Iraq, Adel Abdul-Mahdi was sworn in as Iraq’s new prime minister in late October after months of political wrangling following that country’s parliamentary election in May.
Under a power-sharing agreement, the prime minister position goes to a Shiite, the president is Kurdish and the speaker of parliament is Sunni. Abdul-Mahdi, an independent Shiite, is widely seen as a compromise candidate after Haider al-Abadi, America’s preferred choice, and Iran’s top picks, Nouri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Ameri, failed to make the cut. Abdul-Mahdi is still waiting on parliament to approve his nominees for key cabinet posts, and much of Iraq remains in shambles after the years-long battle to dislodge the Islamic State. But the fact that Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, once a fiercely anti-American militia leader and now a political kingmaker, vowed that Iraq would be led by a pragmatic, broad-based government — beholden to neither Washington nor Tehran — has stirred hopes that the war-torn country can finally begin to move past its sectarian divisions.
These tentative gains are part of the reason why the U.S. should remain invested in Afghanistan and Iraq, Neumann told us in a wide-ranging conversation about foreign policy under both Presidents Trump and Obama.
Neumann served three times as ambassador, to Algeria, Bahrain and finally to Afghanistan from July 2005 to April 2007. He previously served in Baghdad shortly after the U.S. invasion began in October 2003, working with the Coalition Provisional Authority and then as the U.S. Embassy’s liaison to the Multinational Command, where he was deeply involved in coordinating the political strategies behind military actions.
Prior to working in Iraq, Neumann was deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Near East Affairs, with responsibility for North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Earlier in his career, he was posted to the UAE, Yemen, Iran and Senegal.
He is currently president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, founded in 1983 to support and strengthen U.S. diplomacy.
Neumann published a memoir, “Three Embassies, Four Wars,” in 2017 and authored the 2009 book “The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan,” which is where our conversation began.
*NOTE: This interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity.
The Washington Diplomat: Based on your experience, where you’ve served, I’d like to start with getting your opinion on how the Afghanistan War is going at the moment.
Ronald Neumann: I would call it a declining stalemate. That is, the insurgency is doing better. The reason I don’t say winning is because I don’t think — as long as we maintain our involvement — they can actually win. They can take more ground, but they can’t take over major cities or take over [the country], which is why I call it a declining stalemate. We are not doing well.
TWD: Both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dragged on for years. President Trump entered office on a pledge to pull American troops out of foreign entanglements. Do you think he has a point? And by the same token, are you concerned that pulling out several thousand troops will have negative consequences for the fight against the Islamic State?
RN: I think one has to integrate your diplomatic strategy and your military strategy. They don’t look terribly well-integrated to me. For Afghanistan, I think we’re right to stay in for a lot of reasons. With Syria, I have difficulty connecting what the mission is — getting Iran out of Syria, and these things that are talked about now — with keeping 2,000 troops there. That doesn’t seem adequate to the mission.
TWD: Would you agree that that’s a worthy goal in the region —
RN: — to diminish Iranian influence? Yes.
TWD: So is President Trump right in learning the lesson from Iraq not to set a timetable and not to pull out of Afghanistan before the country can defend itself, before its forces are ready for that?
RN: I believe he’s correct. That’s really a lesson from Afghanistan much more than Iraq. Remember, you might say I have skin in the game. I’ve been involved in this policy. I’m not a completely disinterested observer. But yes, the Obama timelines in Afghanistan were terribly damaging. They encouraged the Taliban to wait us out, they led Afghans to believe we were leaving even faster and more completely than we were, and they resulted in our pulling out people before places were ready for us to do so. So they set us back a great deal.
TWD: What do you think needs to happen at the moment? Where’s the gap between where we are and where we need to be?
RN: On our side, we need to take the time to do the training that we were supposed to do before, but rushed. The training was well-resourced in money and equipment, very badly under-resourced in time and personnel. Only for one year did we even reach 50 percent of the required training teams as defined by NATO. And we tried to do this whole massive building of an Afghan army in three years and start pulling out. That was wildly unrealistic. On the Afghan side, they have to improve the efficiency of their commanders, de-politicize it, and they have to improve the governance of the country, to rally people. So we have to do our part, but they have to do theirs.
TWD: To that point on NATO, do you see friction between the Trump administration and our NATO allies spilling over into our work in Afghanistan with them?
RN: No. NATO has been remarkably strong in its support. After all these years, and with so many other crises in the Balkans and Russia and Ukraine, it’s actually kind of remarkable how NATO has stayed with Afghanistan. And in fact the British have recently somewhat increased the numbers they’re going to put in Afghanistan — the Germans also, the Italians are still maintaining a base in the northwest. It’s one of the interesting things that people hardly ever look at, is when they’re busy debating our policies to note that NATO members have continued to believe also that Afghanistan is worth maintaining.
TWD: What are your reflections on Afghanistan’s election?
RN: Mixed. The good side [is] a lot of Afghans came out to vote. I found last week when I was talking to journalists and others in Afghanistan that actually people thought more had come out to vote than they had expected. Administratively, it was very badly handled. A lot of people couldn’t find where their names were on the voter list, all kinds of stuff. So administratively, it was chaotic. It was the first election the Afghans held [that] they had secured completely [on their own]. So there were lots of security problems. On the other hand, the number of incidents were not too similar from the last parliamentary election when we had 100,000 troops in country.
TWD: Did the election provide any hope or any further insight into the potential peace process with the Taliban?
RN: That was not a subject in the election and no, I wouldn’t say it was particularly helpful there…. [The election] doesn’t tell you anything about that.
TWD: Moving over to Iraq. Any reflections on the kind of political wrangling that’s been going on — still not a full cabinet obviously and the failure of the budget to pass as well.
RN: They have a good start at a better cabinet with Abdul-Mahdi and [Kurdish President] Barham Salih, but how far they get I just can’t tell.
TWD: I was always curious about what might have once been called the “Biden Plan” for Iraq: three states, one for a future Kurdistan. Is this still a reasonable alternative?
RN: It was never a reasonable alternative. I always thought it was a very bad idea. It misunderstands that these areas are not cleanly divisible. They’re enormous. Even after a lot of fighting and ethnic cleansing that’s gone on, there are still a lot of interwoven areas. To bring a plan like that into being — which virtually all Iraqis, first of all, refuse, so you can’t make it happen — you would have an enormous amount of bloodletting and ethnic cleansing in order to produce such a division.
TWD: Do you see that as a general concern as a solution to sectarianism, creating states specifically for just one ethnic group?
RN: You have to look at each situation individually. But, in general, if you go with ethnic nationalism, what you end up finding is that you are reducing states into smaller and smaller and less viable fragments. So, do you cut up Spain into the Basques? Do you cut up France? It’s not just Iraq and the Kurds. There’s no end to the process. At some point, people actually have to live with each other.
TWD: Which is the whole goal of diplomacy, right?
RN: Sometimes. Well, a large part of diplomacy is to get other people to do things your way — and like it.
TWD: At the American Academy of Diplomacy, your focus has largely been on maintaining adequate funding for State and USAID. What are your thoughts on the dramatic budget cut proposals we’ve seen from the Trump administration?
RN: We’ve had two main focus areas. One is money, but the other is the quality of American professional diplomacy. The budgets proposed by the administration have been woefully inadequate, but the budgets passed by the Congress have been reasonable. It’s one of the rare areas of bipartisan consensus in Congress when you think about it.
TWD: What does that say to you about Congress’s role in foreign policymaking?
RN: There’s a certain amount of realism in Congress. And overall, Congress has acted responsibly on the foreign policy budgets. Once you get away from big issues like budgets, of course, there are lots of different views on individual issues. It’s very difficult for Congress to play a strong oversight role on foreign policy because they have two real tools: the budget and confirmations. This administration has not wanted as much money as Congress wants to give them, so the budget’s not much leverage. And the administration’s been very slow with its nominations, so withholding confirmation hasn’t been a very useful tool. Those are blunt instruments. The Congress has, beyond that, they have hearings and ways of bringing pressure and focus. But it’s difficult for Congress to exert a lot of control over the administration in foreign policy. It’s partly the way the Constitution is set up.
TWD: Speaking to the Foreign Service specifically, I wanted to ask you about representation as well. In 2015, Thomas Pickering and Edward Perkins wrote an op-ed arguing that our foreign policy presence abroad needs to look more like our population at home and that we need to do a better job recruiting women and people of color into the Foreign Service. Do you agree with this, and how do you think the Foreign Service has done on this score?
RN: I agree with it. The Foreign Service has done reasonably well in recruiting. As I remember, more than half now are women entering. They’re fairly close on the number of black Americans proportional to the population. Asians and Latinos are a little bit low. Where they’re still deficient is at the senior ranks, and that got worse at the beginning of this administration when they pushed aside a number of senior people who were African Americans and Latinos. I think it’s maybe coming back into balance with [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo. It’s a little early to say. I’m actually more concerned that they don’t want to use serving career officers in senior positions at State. You have the notable exception of Ambassador David Hale, who’s now been confirmed as undersecretary of state for political affairs. Other than that position, you have almost no serving senior officers being used in Washington. They’re going out as ambassadors. I think that’s a larger phenomenon in this administration, that there’s a distrust of professionals.
TWD: Any thoughts on the future of diplomacy and how we can craft a more effective one in the future?
RN: I would differentiate a little between policy, which ultimately is the domain of the elected administration, and carrying out policy, which requires an efficient, professional diplomacy. Whether you like a policy or not, you get better results if you have good diplomatic work carrying it out. And in cutting budgets or not having enough training, we’re losing experience by pushing people out the door — we damage the professional institution of diplomacy, which is nonpolitical, nonpartisan and which like a nonpartisan professional military, the nation needs.
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.