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Winning and Losing in Afghanistan

Review by James Abrahamson

Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan. Forward by Bruce Reidel. Washington, DC: Potomac Books, 2009. ISBN: 978-1-59797-427-1, 245 pp. $27.50.

Readers encountering a book on Afghanistan bearing the title The Other War may readily assume that it reflects only the recent presidential campaign, which characterized the Afghans’ struggle as the “necessary war” on the “central front” of the war on terrorism — claims suggesting that Washington had slighted the war in Afghanistan for the benefit of operations in Iraq.

In his memoir, Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, who represented the United States in Kabul from August 2005 to April 2007, offers support for that view. Beginning in 2005, he and Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, the senior American military officer in Afghanistan, called Washington’s attention to the need for more U.S. and international troops to counter an insurgency steadily growing more violent as Taliban forces left their Pakistan enclaves for Afghanistan. The two also appealed for more personnel and funding to train and equip larger Afghan army and police forces to secure areas cleared of Taliban by foreign troops. Without such security, Kabul could not move forward with reconstruction, improvements in governance, or the eradication of opium poppies. As Afghanistan had few engineers, technicians, or experts in administration and management, Neumann sought to compensate for that with more staff for the embassy, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and provincial reconstruction teams (PRT). Despite Neumann’s compelling arguments for more troops, more trainers, more staff, and more funds, Washington responded only in part — and very slowly. Nor did he have much success in convincing Washington that implementation should trump devoting time to making new plans and that decisions made in DC usually take a year to produce results in Afghanistan. Supporting the campaign in Iraq undoubtedly contributed to Afghanistan’s lack of all that was needed to stem the early growth of the insurgency that began there in 2005. Its battle has indeed been the “other war.”

Ambassador to a crippled nation under insurgent attack, Neumann had responsibilities well beyond conveying Washington’s perspective to President Hamid Karzai, submitting reports to the Department of State, and briefing visiting delegations from Congress and the administration. Neumann’s challenges included winning support for and subtly directing his own “other war,” the civil counterpart of Eikenberry’s military operations. Though lacking a general’s authority to command, Neumann needed to marshal forces and funding to begin rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure, improve of its economy, and strengthen its government so as to win the allegiance of its people. Without close cooperation and supportive interaction among Eikenberry’s military forces, Afghanistan’s security forces, the USAID and PRT teams working for Neumann, and the assistance he could coax out of America’s allies and international bodies, the insurgency might well succeed.

Neumann brought special skills to his task. From prior service in Iran and Iraq and ambassadorships in Bahrain and Algeria, he had learned a great deal about Muslim culture. A newlywed in 1967, and before he headed to Vietnam to lead an infantry platoon, he and his wife spent three months traveling in Afghanistan, where his father then served as American ambassador. Those experiences later facilitated good personal relations with both Afghans and members of the armed forces. His preference for getting out of his chancery to judge situations for himself and make personal contact with the Afghan people and members of provincial governments enabled him to lead from the front and move to trouble spots wherever problems emerged. Within the embassy, his manner built morale and prompted its staff to make extra efforts in pursuit of realistic approaches to problems.

Even so, Neumann’s task was daunting. Effectively addressing Afghanistan’s problems and helping stand up its government required winning support that would be forthcoming only if the U.S. Ambassador tactfully sought willing collaboration. The political community within which he worked included not only Afghanistan’s own struggling government, U.S. armed forces, and NATO’s emerging International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) but also representatives of allied governments and supranational bodies — the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the European Union, and NATO — all of whom had a presence in Afghanistan and in return for their support expected to be acknowledged and play a role in policymaking.

Preparation for what became the London Compact and pledging conference is illustrative. It called for Neumann to work closely with UN’s Afghanistan mission and Afghan ministers as they obtained the agreement of sixty nations to a set of benchmarks and supportive funding. With the benchmarks agreed and funds pledged, he and the UN team created a small informal group to follow implementation and suggest to the larger multinational oversight committee the adjustments needed to eliminate overlap and shift resources in response to unanticipated crises

Within Neumann’s chain of command were the USAID officers at provincial level and many — but not all — of the PRTs working to reconstruct and bring better government to provinces and districts. NATO allies staffed and supported some of the PRTs, which often reported not to Neumann but to their national capitals, sometimes sidestepping even their nation’s ambassador in Kabul. By making many trust-building trips outside of Kabul, Neumann pulled them altogether and got them working well with their military counterparts.

Neumann was eager to do so and set himself the goal of at least one trip a week outside of Kabul. From his visits he learned which provincial governors and police chiefs were competent and which he should encourage Karzai to replace. To assist that process, his first-hand contacts in the field provided insight into the tribal loyalties and conflicts that made an Afghan official’s replacement a delicate task. During his trips, Neumann also met and quickly came to work well with British, Canadian, Australian, German, Dutch and other commanders, which enabled him to win their countries’ support for an auxiliary Afghan police force to relieve the better trained police of some of their simpler security tasks. From his conversations with the PRTs and USAID groups, he received frank assessments and returned to Kabul with answers to his questions and new ideas to share. As an embassy morale builder, Neumann took along junior members of his staff, who were pleased to see Afghanistan first hand, share their experience with others, and bring renewed enthusiasm to their tasks.

Neumann and the military commanders were typically in full agreement on the need for building more paved roads. The Taliban rarely mined them, and friendly forces could speed troops and supplies to needed locations. The resulting improvement in security facilitated both reconstruction and eradication of the opium poppies that financed the Taliban. After multinational ISAF forces commanded by British Lieutenant General David Richards defeated a major Taliban offensive near Kandahar in September 2009, the value of Neumann’s knowledge of the countryside and his personal contacts became apparent. The troops had cleared two important districts, but their populations could not return until completion of extensive reconstruction — for which NATO provided no funds to its ISAF. To compensate, U.S. forces provided money from their Commanders Emergency Relief Program (CERP) as did Neumann’s USAID. When Canadian members of Richards’ command had an especial need for a new road in their area, Neumann offered USAID funding for part of the road, and the German ambassador sought his government’s financing for the rest.

Knowledge of the countryside also played a role regarding a needed hydroelectric project in Helmand Province. Inexpensive electricity would eliminate the need for many diesel-powered generators and make it possible to introduce simple manufactures in that part of Afghanistan. As Neumann observed, Afghanistan grows tomatoes but imports tomato paste. With cheap electric power and good roads, Afghans could begin processing their agricultural products and send them to market. In Helmand manufacturing could also provide an alternative to growing poppies.

When Neumann’s defense attaché reported that small arms fire and rockets threatened progress on the Kajaki Dam hydroelectric project, Neumann hastened to the scene with his USAID director and a senior ISAF officer. Conversations with a Dutch PRT, Australian army engineers, the commander of local British forces, and American contractors led to better ISAF security for the builders and an improved road for the passage of heavy equipment. Senior people had seen the site, understood the problem, and made plans to facilitate the dam’s construction – an illustration of the importance of an ambassador who appreciated the problem and could draw key officers to the spot for consultations with local officials.

The way in which Neumann managed his embassy, cooperated with the armed forces, and worked closely with the Afghan government, supranational bodies, and the representatives of foreign governments revealed to this reader how he overcame difficulties that might have overwhelmed a less capable diplomat. As Bruce Reidel observed in the book’s forward, Neumann’s memoir is “a manual on what to do” that should be read by “all aspiring ambassadors.” I heartily agree and recommend it to every diplomat, a good many soldiers, and all those eager to learn how a first-rate ambassador best represents the United States abroad.End.

James L. Abrahamson
James L. Abrahamson

James Abrahamson, a graduate of West Point and the holder of a doctorate from Stanford University, served 27 years in the U. S. Army retiring as a Colonel. He is a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers and a Contributing Editor of American Diplomacy. He has authored four books on military history.


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