Episode 23. Afghanistan: The US Pivot, Sharing Danger & The Importance Of Cultural Intelligence Part I


General Allen and Ambassador Cunningham describe the US pivot in the war, the key role of allies and the handling of burning of the Koran and civilian casualties.

Episode Transcript:

Amb. McCarthy: (00:09) Welcome to a conversation in the series The General and the Ambassador. Our discussion focuses on how our senior military leaders work with our senior ambassadors to advance American national security interests. My name is Ambassador Deborah McCarthy and I'm the host of the series. Today our conversation will be about Afghanistan. I warmly welcome our guests, Ambassador James Cunningham and General John R. Allen. Ambassador Cunningham was the Deputy Ambassador, then the Ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2014. He also served, among other senior assignments, as the US Ambassador to Israel. Currently he is a nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council and a private consultant. General Allen was the commander of both US forces and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013. At the end of his military career, he transitioned to be the Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Defense on Middle East Security. Then became special envoy to the global coalition to counter ISIL. He is currently the president of the Brookings Institution. Gentlemen, you worked together during an important transition period in US involvement in Afghanistan. Our military mission changed and on the diplomatic side we had to negotiate with the government to get a new 10 year security agreement. General, if I can start with you, what was your mission going into Afghanistan and what were US and NATO contributions at that time

Gen. Allen: (01:43) Well Ambassador, thank you very much for the opportunity to be here with you and it is a great honor to be with Ambassador Cunningham, Jim Cunningham. I first encountered him when he was the Consul General in Hong Kong.

Amb. McCarthy: (01:53) Oh really?

Gen. Allen: (01:53) When I was a young Brigadier. I would then cross paths with him on another mission I had in Israel when he was the ambassador and then we'd serve again in Afghanistan. And I'll just tell you what a great diplomat he has been and in a world and an a time where our diplomats have made such an important contribution to the interests of the United States and our coalition, Jim was one of the leading diplomats. So it's been a great honor to be with him. Plus, I'm a marine, so I've spent many, many years in embassies and know that community well. The moment that I arrived in Afghanistan, I had the mission, by and large, from President Obama to transition the war, to pivot the war. We had about 150,000 troops, US and coalition forces, a large contingent of special operators, and we had about 300,000 Afghans who were transitioning up to about 350,000, and my mission was to continue to keep the Taliban at bay, defeat al Qaeda, and prevent the overthrow of the Afghan government. But specifically to that mission, I had to return the 33,000 surge troops that President Obama had committed to the war. I needed to begin to transition the NATO and US force from being a main force combat unit to being an advisory command. I needed to push the Afghan forces into the lead for combat operations across the country. And I needed to transition the theater from being a US and NATO led theater of operations to an Afghan theater, which meant I needed to close, I found 835 bases when I arrived, I needed to move from 835 down to about 12. It was a big pivot. The mission largely remained the same, which was keep the Taliban at bay, shift the war to the Afghans and then pivot the war that we had been fighting to an advisory war that put the Afghans in the lead.

Amb. McCarthy: (03:41) And what did that mean for the US embassy, it's responsibilities, what other additional things that you have to take on during this transition?

Amb. Cunningham: (03:50) When I arrived in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011, it was at the peak of what was the military surge. There was supposed to be an accompanying civilian surge also that had been set in train, but it hadn't really peaked yet. It was a source of some unhappiness on the part of some of our military colleagues at the time because they felt the State Department wasn't effectively increasing the civilian presence to match the military surge. Fact is, the State Department isn't equipped to do that and was trying very hard but couldn't. Anyway, when I got there, the military surge was already ending, as John just said, we were already talking about the draw down, so when I got there, my marching orders were to complete the civilian surge and one of the first things I did when I got there, is I went back to Washington and said, we're actually drawing down. There isn't going to be any more civilian surge, we've peaked and now we're going to start drawing down. For us, that was a major change in mindset. Up to that point, the civilian part of the government had been operating on the premise of a nationwide presence. When I got there, we had embassies and civilian personnel all over the country, including at the village level in small teams, married up with military counterparts doing all the kind of efforts that were underway to try to strengthen society, strengthen governance, and all that sort of thing. So very quickly our task became no longer how do we do all the things that we've been doing, it became looking at what do we really need to do, what do we start shedding? And eventually later on in the process it became a very close and intricate discussion between the civilians and the military side over what roles the civilian presence could take on as the military role declined. That was one of the major themes of the time that I was there. And I want to thank John for his complimentary comments about me, but I have to say as ambassador there, I was there for almost three and a half years, I was extremely blessed to have incredibly competent and capable military counterparts to deal with at the head of the US forces there and John's partnership with me was a real revelation in a way. It hadn't been the case in places like Afghanistan and Iraq where the ambassador and senior military commanders got along that well. There's always lots of differences to work out, but John was an incredibly great partner and leader. I've always been grateful for that

Amb. McCarthy: (06:11) And in our presence in Afghanistan, besides our military, we've had for years a huge program of development assistance. Normally that's the work of an embassy, but in Afghanistan our military often carried out some of these projects, especially in areas which were deemed unsafe where USAID could not go into, can you talk a little bit about this?

Amb. Cunningham: (06:33) When I first derived, I went there as the Deputy Ambassador, which is a full level ambassadorial position, and we actually had five ambassadorial level positions in the embassy, it was very large structure. The principal was Ryan Crocker and one of the first things that Ryan and John did, they arrived almost simultaneously, Ryan a little bit later, I think. One of the first things they did is they sent a message down from the top to all the people working for them saying, "no more disagreements in the field. You're going to work together, you're going to cooperate. If you have an issue, bring it to us and we'll resolve it." It takes work and determination to develop cooperation because you have, as I said before, you always have different perspectives about any given issue.

Amb. McCarthy: (07:16) People feel territorial about certain things.

Amb. Cunningham: (07:17) People feel territorial. The military frankly had a lot of the money and a lot of the people. The civilian presence was always relatively smaller, understandably, used to doing work the way that they work. Contractors and government employees and the people in the military either the same, or they hadn't done this kind of stuff before, so they were kind of picking it up and learning it as they went along. But they brought their own mindset to what it is that they were trying to do, and sometimes it didn't always mesh all that well, but they worked hard to make it work. And I have to say that in almost every place that I visited around the country, and when I got there, civilians could still travel widely around the country, I was always impressed by the job that our civilian and our military colleagues were doing together. They brought a mindset to it that, we have a job who brings the best assets and leverage to bear? How can we cooperate and learn from each other? Most of the time it really was rather incredible effort. I always hoped that our young and mid level officers would learn things from that engagement and that kind of cooperation that they would bring to bear later in their careers, because I spent most of my career working with the military in one form or another, but many of my colleagues have not and it's a really valuable experience.

Amb. McCarthy: (08:27) This investment on the governance side, why is this investment so important?

Gen. Allen: (08:32) We were in Afghanistan, not just to fight, we were in Afghanistan to leave something behind which we could point to that created long term political, economic, and social stability. And so the development piece was absolutely essential. Jim is 100% correct. From the very beginning of my command, we worked very, very closely with the State Department and at the far flung locations across the country, we worked very, very hard to ensure that the military activity was synchronized very, very closely with the development activities. And I have to say that in the previous war in Iraq, in al-Anbar, which is where I was, in 2007, what ultimately brought us success, defeating al-Qaeda, and while the troops had done a magnificent job, it was the work of USAID. It was the development work. After we would fight, the development folks were in there instantly, at frankly great peril to themselves. I had enormous respect for them. The stability that was created almost immediately through economic opportunity, with then the companion efforts being undertaken to create local governance all under the watchful eye of marines and soldiers, or in Afghanistan the burgeoning Afghan forces and police. That was really what we were trying to do. The challenge that I had was never on the USAID side or in cooperation with the US embassy, and the challenge that I had was that it was a coalition of 50 countries that I was leading. And so there were many places around Afghanistan where the provincial reconstruction team was entirely from another country, and while they would politely respond to me, they had no obligation to respond to me. Their military command did, but their development agencies in whatever form they took, had no responsibility to come back to me. Now they were all, in the spirit of cooperation, very responsive. And so there were a number of countries in addition to the wonderful work done by USAID out of the embassy in Kabul, where we had very effective outcomes. Down in Kandahar with the British, up north, the German led teams in Mazar-i-Sharif, the Italian efforts in the West, in Herat, actually in and around the vicinity of Kabul, the Turkish work that was done there, and they directly linked the history of the king of Afghanistan to Ataturk, Mustafa Kemal. So they really leveraged many capabilities that we didn't have necessarily, or when we simply couldn't get into a particular location, I would find out what provincial reconstruction team was operating there and try to leverage their capabilities. But development was central to our definition of success.

Amb. McCarthy: (11:12) I visited the PRT that the Lithuanians had, and that they closed out in, I think it was 2014, and they were proud of what they had accomplished, not being a country that had a lot of development assistance, but also because what it meant to be a NATO partner in there with the US.

Gen. Allen: (11:28) They were in Ghor, as I recall, that's not the end of the planet, but if you stand on tall building, you can see the end of the planet from there. And I always was enormously impressed by the Lithuanians and what they did there. I mean there's a term in the Marine Corps, "alone and unafraid." I don't know if they were afraid, but they were sure alone out there, and the work that they did, Lithuania, NATO, America, we have every right to be very proud of what that small group did. They were operating outside the proportion of what they were contributing, so they can be very proud of what they did.

Amb. Cunningham: (11:57) A lot of our smaller partners played similar roles. People often forget, and particularly Americans aren't very well aware of, that this is a huge partnership. Not just with NATO and the United States, but with many other countries who are bringing sometimes small amounts of military forces to bear as part of the coalition, sometimes development assistance, sometimes significant development assistance, like Japan for instance, has been a major contributor to the development effort. It's this kind of international and partnership in coalition that you need to deal with virtually any problem that we're trying to deal with now. What we've achieved in Afghanistan I think is a very good forerunner for how you develop these partnerships and John was instrumental in doing the same thing in dealing with ISIS in one of his roles after he left. One of the things that I deeply regret now is the kind of willful ignorance in some quarters about the value of partnerships in coalition for achieving things that Americans want and need and can't do by themselves.

Gen. Allen: (12:55) Couldn't agree more Jim. That's wonderful.

Amb. McCarthy: (12:57) And they've continued to be with us there over 17 years.

Amb. Cunningham: (13:00) They were the ones who came to us, and won't go too far into this, but when President Obama decided that he was going to try to draw down to a normal embassy, transition away from a combat role, a move that I thought was too rapid a descent, it was our partners who came to us quietly and said, we don't think this is going to work. You need to rethink this. They wanted us to stay and they wanted to be with us. In the kind of work that we do in the military and in the diplomatic world, that's the most important asset that you can have; people want to be your partners in doing difficult stuff. Then there isn't another country in the world that has that kind of attraction.

Gen. Allen: (13:38) As it began to become very apparent that we were coming out pretty quickly, I had many ministers of defense and foreign affairs and prime minister's visit me in my headquarters, and I'll remember one particular visit from a very small country in central Europe who hadn't given, in absolute terms, a lot of troops, but per capita it was a huge contribution. My headquarters was attacked, suicide bombers and long range fires, and I remember as I was watching this attack unfold, lots of the people inside that compound were running in one direction, but all the troops of that small country were all running towards the enemy. Later I would meet the Minister of Defense who was, as Jim said, deeply concerned that this relationship that had been built, that had in so many ways leavened their own forces simply by being in proximity to American forces and NATO forces was going to come to an end and he said, "I would just ask America to remember that we are here not because we have an inherent need to fight the Taliban. We are here because of you. We were for many years the consumers of the peace that America brought that part of the world and now we believe it to be our duty to be with you in this war so that we can be providers of this peace." He said with tears coming down his cheeks. Hopefully that country will join NATO soon since we got the name figured out.

Amb. McCarthy: (15:02) Ah yes, an issue I worked on on my assignment to Greece. Yes.

Gen. Allen: (15:03) Yes, so I'm not going to say the name of the country, but I think everyone can figure it out. But they were magnificent and almost all of them were like that. I don't want to take the interview off the tracks here, but when people wonder about where American influence is best exerted, it's not exerted through our carrier strike groups, it's exerted through our diplomats. It's exerted through coherent foreign policy. It's exerted through our partnerships and our allies and our friendships and multilateral organizations. That's the strength of America, and it's a transformational strength in the world. It's not bilateral and it's not transactional and you can see it on the ground when our diplomats, our intelligence folks, our troops and their troops are all sharing danger together. That's the ultimate example of the strength of American diplomacy.

Amb. McCarthy: (15:48) We were talking earlier about the agreements that had to be negotiated and renegotiated.

Amb. Cunningham: (15:53) The first agreement, the fundamental agreement was something called the Strategic Partnership, which had been set in train but was languishing for a variety of reasons when I got there, and that became a priority for us to get negotiated during the first year that I was there. This Strategic Partnership was a framework agreement that set up the principles that were governing our partnership with the Afghan government. That was seen as the foundation or the cornerstone for what then would be the longterm American, and by extension, international presence in Afghanistan. We worked extremely closely with John and his staff. We had integrated negotiating teams under the authority, the ambassador was the lead negotiator, but our military colleagues, John himself, was involved in the negotiations at the table and the same thing, we handled it the same way in the ensuing phase with what's called the bilateral security agreement, which is the foundation for maintaining an American military presence in Afghanistan. And General Dunford who succeeded John was a full participant in that negotiation as well. This provided several important things. The most important thing I think was not the substantive expertise that our military colleagues brought to the negotiation, which is absolutely crucial, the most important thing is that when we had contentious issues with President Karzai and the Afghan government, they would see that we were united side by side at the table talking about the same issues, working through with them on the same issues, not reading from a set of talking points but problem solving, but seeing that we were united and they were not going to get something that they wanted by by dealing with one or the other of us.

Amb. McCarthy: (17:43) They couldn't play one off against the other.

Gen. Allen: (17:43) That's right. That's right.

Amb. Cunningham: (17:43) I think it's fair to say he wouldn't mind, that president Karzai thought occasionally that that was a good thing to try to. I don't think, I know it was very important for him and his negotiators to realize this fact of life. I might say it also helped us immeasurably in dealing with Washington to see the same thing that the ambassador and the senior military commander were both concerned about the same things and had an understanding between them about how a particular issue should be addressed.

Amb. McCarthy: (18:08) During your time in Afghanistan, you had to deal with a number of difficult incidents including the burning of Qurans at a US military base and a coalition strike against the Taliban, which killed a number of civilians. How did you both work on general public messaging and outreach in Afghanistan? I know you both traveled the country, I understand General that you met with some of the family members in that particular strike?

Gen. Allen: (18:34) I got to know the Afghans very well. I was always with them across the country and I was with their forces in combat, so I got to know them very well and I think they trusted me. The Quran burning was, in my mind, the potential for the end of the campaign. When I got the phone call about 4:00 in the morning to say that about 200 holy Quran had just been burned in the trash pit at Bagram. You'll maybe remember a so-called pastor in Florida had burned one Quran just the year before and the riots in Mazar-i-Sharif had dragged the UN delegation out into the streets and slaughtered them all with butcher knives. So I called my NATO Senior Commander, a classmate from Annapolis, Admiral Jim Stavridas, and the American commander, a dear friend I'd served with for several years, by name of Jim Mattis, and told them this might be the end of the campaign. As big as this is, the streets of Afghanistan could be running red with the blood of our troops by the end of the day, so we need to buckle down and get ready for the fight. I was immediately in touch with the embassy, but it wasn't just a an embassy issue, it was all of the delegations that were there. To make a long story short, in this case, I very, very quickly taped both a video interview and an audio, and I needed to get out ahead of the Taliban message, which would have been, once again, the infidels have demonstrated their disrespect for Islam and Afghanistan and the people. Rather than the Afghans waking up to the message of the Taliban that the infidels had desecrated 200 holy Quran. They woke up to me speaking to them on television and me speaking to them over the radio, telling them first that it was my most sincere apology, that the holy Quran could have been treated this way, that we know better, but that this was an awful accident on our part and that I intended to fully investigate this so it would never happen again. And I think in many ways that quieted things. And I got ahold of President Karzai very quickly and said, "look, we're either going to be together on this or they're going to take you apart, right with me. So we've got to have a constant common message between Afghanistan and my headquarters on this issue." And of course the US embassy and my headquarters very quickly pulled in together along with all the other major embassies. So that was that message. Sadly, we had a number of very tragic air strikes over the time I was the commander there, and civilian casualties were very, very important to me to minimize to the maximum extent. But this particular one, I think it's the one you're talking about, was in a place called Baraki Barak. Baraki Barak, just two years earlier, had been considered the great success in counterinsurgency, where the Afghans were with us fighting the Taliban and they were very much in favor of the central government, et cetera. So long story short, terrible tragedy, very heavy casualties. We'd hit, we'd hit a wedding party and the buildings were full of Taliban, but we didn't realize that the wedding party had come in. We hit them hard, multiple deaths. To me, there was only one way to handle this. And so the governor of Logar, who I knew well, gathered together all the men of the village, and I took off my helmet and my body armor and I surrendered my side arm to one of my body guards, and with my cultural advisor, went in unarmed to confront the men whose wives had just been buried that morning, some of them with their infant children. That's a pretty sobering moment. It's difficult to stand in front of all of those people as the commander of the theater and tell them that you take singular responsibility for the deaths of their families and how deeply, sorry you are for it. But, you know, I fully expected that this could go very badly, but if I walked in there armored up and armed, it would have sent a different message and I needed to go in there completely vulnerable. Later, Hamid Karzai would be very, very complimentary. He believed that that gesture was what perhaps saved that province. And it wasn't a hollow gesture. I knew this could go badly, but I also knew that Afghans being the people of, I think, significant personal virtue and integrity. People believe them to be simple and unsophisticated. That is a huge mistake. I believed that they would sense that what I did was genuine, intended to truly communicate my condolences and my sorrow at what had just happened.

Amb. Cunningham: (22:53) This is an important trait for modern military leadership that John demonstrated, and that his successors demonstrated as well in the time that I was there. Which is being sensitive and receptive. I hadn't served in the Islamic world before when I got to Afghanistan and I didn't quite understand the complexity and the significance of the Quran. This pastor that John referred to not only burned a Quran, but then he kept threatening to do it again and again and again to incite the hatred. Having military leaders who are both sensitive to the implications of things like this that happen, whether in theater of war or not, and then responsive to them is an incredibly important thing that I think our best military leaders have now seen and internalized over the years of exposure to this sort of thing, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places where we have people stationed trying to deal with some of the most difficult and dangerous situations in the world. I can tell you it doesn't always exist in senior leaders, civilian or military, but it's something that I hope our senior, not just military leaders, but civilian leaders are also learning as we've gone through these difficult times in the last decades.

Amb. Cunningham: (24:06) And as Jim said, you cannot overstate the value in a crisis of a person to person relationship. To be able to walk in and see a Sheik and speak a little Arabic, or walk into see a village strong man, or a village elder, and be able to speak a bit of Dari, as you are leveraging your personal relationship, either to do good for the village or to diffuse a problem. It's something that comes naturally to diplomats and it comes naturally to folks who were eyeball to eyeball on the ground with the people. It's the personal relationships that'll get you through this and you cannot overemphasize being prepared for the culture and the faith and the colonial heritage and the nature of the people with whom you're dealing.

Amb. McCarthy: (24:44) This concludes part one of our podcast with General John R. Allen and Ambassador Jim Cunningham, who are discussing their relationship when serving in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013. Stay tuned for part two where General Allen and Ambassador Cunningham talk about the pain of loss of soldiers and staff, the shared experience of war of a generation of soldiers and diplomats, the prospects for settlement negotiations, and the need for rising leaders to understand local culture.