Opinion: A Diplomatic Cable on Afghanistan from a U.S. Ambassador in the Caspian Region
American diplomats are taught from the beginning that they do not have crystal balls and should not speculate in public. But an important part of their jobs is to keep Washington informed about developments in the countries where they are assigned – and that inevitably involves speculation on what is likely to come next and recommendations for next steps. So let’s imagine an American Ambassador’s spot report to Washington from one of the countries in Central Asia and the South Caucasus, now that Afghanistan has fallen to the Taliban.
SUBJECT: NEXT STEPS?
SUMMARY. In meetings on August 16 with senior government officials and think-tank leaders, we heard resignation and exasperation – resignation that the Taliban now rule Afghanistan and exasperation that the United States “let it happen.” Whether true or not, that is their perception. They also made clear that the fall of the Ghani government empowers Russia and China throughout the region. As is well known, each of these countries employs its own version of multi-vector foreign policy, working to balance Russia, China, the European Union, and the United States. And as we have often heard, they point out that Washington is rather far away from the region. What should the United States now do? Here’s what’s most important: engage, engage, engage!
SPECIFIC CONCERNS. Our interlocutors did not hide their annoyance at the U.S. tendency to finger-wag in public statements, especially about human rights and religious freedom. They, of course, hastened to assure us that they are indeed committed to those ideals but immediately reminded us that we need to understand that they live in “a tough neighborhood.” They warned that they will now have to up their game against Islamist extremists because of real concerns that these extremists on their own territory will have increasingly strong links to the committed ideologues in Kabul. To prove their point, they reminded us how many of their own citizens eagerly went to Syria to fight with ISIS and have also been allied with ISIS and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. They asked, “Do you want the same thing to happen here that is now happening in Afghanistan?”
We assured them that we understand their situation but made clear that the United States will never abandon its commitment to human rights and religious freedom around the world. We also assured them that we will work with them in more appropriate ways to achieve those ideals. We made clear that more than ever we need reliable partners in the region.
At the foreign ministry and from the president’s foreign policy advisers, we heard clear concerns that Moscow will now increase its requests more strongly than ever to station more Russian troops in the region. One pointed out that this is to be expected because Moscow has labeled the former republics of the Soviet Union its “special sphere of influence.” It has no plan to reconstitute the Soviet Union, she said, but it does want to be at the top of the diplomatic ladder. Another noted that Russian diplomats have already been deploying the line that the United States cut and ran in Afghanistan and would certainly do so here, if push came to shove. Others added that Russia insists it is their only reliable partner for the long term.
As for China, several speculated that China might now start requesting permission to deploy its hard power to protect its investments in the Belt and Road Initiative projects it has already built throughout the region. One think-tank leader pointed out that neither Moscow nor Beijing will condition its support on human-rights and religious-freedom ideals.
COMMENT. We recommend that Secretary of State Antony Blinken call an immediate virtual meeting of the foreign ministers in the region to reassure them that the United States clearly understands their current anxiety and is with them for the long term. This should be followed as soon as possible by a visit to each of the capitals by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. We need to counter in person and at a high level the Russian line that Washington cannot be trusted, that we cut and run when it’s to our own advantage. We need to show that we do indeed take these countries seriously. This is important because we will need these countries more than ever to handle the flood of Afghan refugees and to guard against the growth of radical Islamist groups allied with the Taliban in their own countries. Yes, certainly our message should also express our concern that the countries not backslide on human rights and religious freedom; but we should assure them that we will help them do so in quiet ways behind closed doors so that there can actually be positive results that are ultimately to the advantage of their own countries.
Photo: Groups preparing to flee Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday morning before the Taliban took over the city. (c) Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times