Retired diplomats living in Chatham shed light on Afghanistan war, withdrawal

Editor’s note: U.S. military aircraft carried the last American troops out of Afghanistan on Monday. It signified the end of the longest war in U.S. history, coming just before (Afghanistan time) the Aug. 31 withdrawal deadline set by President Biden. Hundreds of Americans still in the country, and tens of thousands of Afghans, now face an uncertain future. Ending U.S. presence in that country was a campaign promise of President Biden’s, but despite polls revealing most Americans backed the decision, most disapproved of how the exit was handled. Since 2001, 2,461 U.S. troops were killed there, and tens of thousands of Afghans have died in fighting during the nearly two-decade war.

For reaction and insight about Afghanistan and the withdrawal, the News + Record reached out to Bob and Maggie Pearson, Chatham residents who retired to Fearrington Village in 2015 after respective careers as diplomats. Included in their long record of service: Bob Pearson was U.S. Ambassador to Turkey from 2000 to 2003 and Director General of the Foreign Service from 2003 to 2006, and Maggie Pearson was a Senior Foreign Service Public Diplomacy Officer during the 2000 to 2006 period.

“We believe President Biden made the right decision to leave,” the Pearsons write. “The U.S. military is the best fighting force in the world. Our diplomats gave their best from beginning to end. But without an achievable strategy to win and transform the country and without popular support at home, we could not remain indefinitely.”

PITTSBORO — On August 13 at dinner with family in San Francisco, we were asked how long the Afghan government might hold out.

We said less than a month.

Forty-eight hours later, Kabul fell. We will always remember the sacrifices made, the lives lost by our American heroes, and the enormous efforts made.

From 2001 to 2006, Afghanistan was part of my (Bob’s) job ­— first as ambassador to Turkey from 2000 to 2003, and then as Director General of the Foreign Service from 2003 to 2006. On 9/11, we were both in Washington, D.C., for talks. We were watching on TV the horrifying events in New York, where our son was working, and heard the powerful explosion as American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon. That day we saw thousands of workers walking miles to get home. We went down to the Potomac River and saw the smoke cloud still rising just across the river. No one knew what might happen next or when.

A week later Bob was back in Turkey, thanks to a patched-together flight schedule. He still remembers that Delta Airlines had a Muslim woman at the counter helping passengers. She got him on a flight last-minute to Atlanta to catch an Olympic Airlines flight to Zurich and then to Turkey.

In Ankara, Bob immediately asked the Turks for support for an operation in Afghanistan. Turkey’s Prime Minister called him in his car going home to say, “Yes.” Many Turks came to the Embassy with flowers and notes to express their own feelings for all who had died. Turkish firemen placed a fire helmet at our gate. 9/11 was a global attack. It’s not widely known that included in the nearly 3,000 people who died that day were victims from 77 foreign countries.

From 2003, as Director General, Bob was responsible for sending American diplomats to Afghanistan. It is a point of pride that every diplomat who went was a volunteer, then and now. From 2003 Maggie was in our bureau to examine and qualify candidates for the Foreign Service. There was no shortage of young women and men stepping up to the challenge.

Space does not permit sharing all the wonderful stories of these young Americans who saw 9/11 as their Pearl Harbor and responded, but Bob recalls the young American woman watching the events of 9/11 unfold from Madrid who came home to sign up, the Korean-American woman lawyer who joined, and the young man from Iowa studying Arabic at Berkeley who volunteered to escort Americans in Iraq.

Secretary of State Colin Powell was Bob’s boss from 2001 to 2005 and saw the perils ahead. His eight questions from 1991 — the “Powell Doctrine,” requiring yes before any American military operation ( — were gradually set aside after the initial victory. The most important, often quoted, was the necessity for an effective exit strategy.

Others among the Powell Doctrine questions are important, too:

1. Was there a clear national security interest threatened?

Yes, for a time as we rooted out Al Qaeda and searched for Osama bin Laden. It was probably not a vital national interest to the U.S. then to decide to democratize a country in central Asia which had never experienced such institutions or principles.

2. Did we have a clear attainable objective?

Yes, for the first stage. The objective of democratizing Afghanistan was, however, an open-ended goal.

3. Were the risks and costs fully and frankly analyzed?

At the beginning, we had the will and the means to militarily defeat the Taliban, who supported Al Qaeda. Just over three weeks after 9/11, our superb military invaded to overthrow the Taliban government supporting bin Laden and succeeded by December 2001. Analysis of the risks and costs of a long term operation followed only after we had won the initial military campaign.

4. Were the consequences of our actions fully considered?

Given the time constraints, the first phase consequences were partially considered. Those considerations after December 2001 followed, not preceded, the political decision to democratize the country.

5. Was there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement?

Due to the overwhelming determination by Americans in 2001 to attack the Taliban and Al-Qaeda where they were, this question never came into play. Only after December 2001 and the U.S. military victory was the question raised. Many felt that leaving immediately would just open the door again to the Taliban or Al Qaeda. There was widespread sentiment to help Afghans achieve better lives. We never articulated a plausible exit strategy.

In 2014 the idea emerged that managing to maintain an indefinite stalemate to prevent the Taliban from winning was acceptable. This has become known as the “middle ground” theory. This policy failed to demonstrate how democracy could succeed, the damage done by a corrupt government, the costs of indefinite occupation, the focus Afghanistan and Iraq were giving to U.S. military career experience and goals, or how pleased Russia and China might be to see the U.S. tied down for years in Afghanistan.

Over time, the American people lost confidence in this “100 year” war, as Sen. John McCain described it. Former president Donald Trump began negotiations with the Taliban in 2018, even trying to invite the Taliban to Camp David, and sealed the deal in February 2020. He agreed to release 5,000 Taliban fighters from prison. He reduced American forces from over 13,000 to just over 3,000 and set May 1, 2021 as the final withdrawal date. Taliban attacks on Afghan government forces increased sharply after that February 2020.

Those in opposition to withdrawal, now so outraged, might refresh their memories.

President Biden inherited this deal. He made his own decisions on that basis. In retrospect, millions of Afghans learned about democracy but the Kabul government remained corrupt and failed to provide its army with the goods, the salaries, and the leadership its soldiers deserved. There is no doubt the U.S. could have prolonged the conflict, but a fair question is: To what end?

We believe President Biden made the right decision to leave. The U.S. military is the best fighting force in the world. Our diplomats gave their best from beginning to end. But without an achievable strategy to win and transform the country and without popular support at home, we could not remain indefinitely. That the departure would be messy was predictable; whether and how it could have been mitigated will be debated for years. That chaos could have been avoided after a sudden collapse of the Afghanistan government and army was what we certainly may have hoped for but not what we could have expected.

Now the focus is switching to what can be done.

In Afghanistan, the agenda is clear: (1) bring out as many as possible of those who helped us and are left behind; (2) condition any financing for Afghanistan on Taliban behavior; and (3) push for global humanitarian assistance with assurances.

At home, let’s remember that American policy direction should reflect our people’s concerns and expectations; it is — as it should be — the only way to build and sustain policy legitimacy.

Taking on board such citizen views at every stage is critical for proper decision making before we put American lives at risk and keep spending our national treasure.

America has a lot to offer the world. Let’s make sure we do it smart.

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