Donald Bishop, a Public Diplomacy Council past president and scholar at the Marine Corps University, sounded out two former ambassadors to Afghanistan on lessons for public diplomacy from the United States’ twenty-year engagement there.
“Afghanistan: A Look Back at the Whole-of-Government Enterprise,” First Monday Forum for December 13, drew 73 attendees. It featured Ambassador Ryan Crocker, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Ambassador Ronald Neumann, now President of the American Academy of Diplomacy. The talk was an initiative of the PD Council’s affinity group for Whole of Government Strategic Communication, led by Peter Kovach.
All agreed that heated debate and observation has turned up “lessons observed” but no “lessons learned” from the experience. Both ambassadors pointed to clear deficits in unified strategic communications and an abandonment of longstanding cultural initiatives as a result of the precipitous Taliban takeover amid a U.S. withdrawal.
Diplomatic and military coordination – happenstance?
Amb. Neumann noted that the ambassador and the lead general in theater have no single chain of command short of the president, making civil-military cooperation “heavily dependent on personalities.” Amb. Crocker said his coordination with General David Petraeus was ““by happenstance not by design.” He cited previous service with Gen. Petraeus in Iraq and pointed to signals of unity like his swearing- in in Kabul, attended by Petraeus. Their joint campaign plan strove for a whole-of-government approach and the two worked to avoid disagreements at weekly meetings with the President. But there is “no institutional legacy,” Crocker added.
The problem at bottom: “boots” on the ground
Both ambassadors praised the abilities of their public affairs officers, citing Don Bishop as well as Daniel Sreebny, who was on the Zoom call. However, the civilian footprint for public diplomacy, like that of diplomacy in general, was insufficient because the State Department does not have enough officers and specialists for crisis response, creating several problems.
- State had to scramble to get enough people on the ground, taking Foreign Service Officers away from other posts. “The State Department doesn’t have enough of anything,” Crocker generalized. He noted the value of recruiting three ambassador-ranked officers for tours; an ambassador “gets DoD’s attention,” he asserted.
- State relied on an executive order to hire temporary U.S. civilian personnel (colloquially known as “3161s”) from outside the service. Some were effective but many were not.
- Some officers volunteered for duty strictly to receive the danger pay. They were not all suited to the assignment.
- Tours in Afghanistan were so short that programs and practices suffered from discontinuity.
The ambassadors both cited the need for a Foreign Service Reserve program but despaired of gaining congressional authorization for it. Failing that, they saw potential lessons from USAID’s experience with DART teams.
PD, think outside your sandbox
For these experienced ambassadors public diplomacy is a larger concept than the State Department’s apparatus.
- Crocker averred that traditional PD programs didn’t always match up to the needs. He cited the U.S. relief effort after the earthquake in Pakistan during his tenure there, where General Abizaid was able to provide helicopters and field hospitals in days, but added that the “military didn’t have an organizational role in telling the story.” A Navy public affairs officer did the best work just narrating facts on the ground, he said. He praised Eileen O’Connor’s performance as the “uber” PAO in Afghanistan, where she brought Sesame Street in Dari and Pashtun with tailored content to the nation’s airwaves. “Just get the best talent you can find,” was his conclusion.
- Bishop observed that during his tenure, English teaching, media relations and cultural heritage programs worked well. “But I had the feeling that our Public Diplomacy operations didn’t really mesh with military public affairs and PSYOP, which were led by one flag-rank officer.”
- Neumann summarized: “When you’re trying to communicate during a war, you have some unique problems. The insurgents can work with promises, because they don’t have power. The counter-insurgent has to talk about what they’re doing in the present.”
- Neumann went on to say that the clearance process slows reaction, and short-term tours prevent all officers from understanding the local culture. As a result, U.S. messaging tended to be too complicated and not direct enough for the Afghan public.
The tone of these experienced diplomats was quiet anger about the decision to pull out of Afghanistan, which they attributed to the last two administrations. And grim pessimism about a true reckoning that might prepare the U.S. for future crises.
Answering a question from Amb. Greta Morris about improving human rights and women’s rights going forward Crocker said, “We betrayed about half the population. The female half.“ He continued, “The promise was ‘you step forward and we’ve got your backs.’ And we didn’t. Afghanistan was the only place where we had agency in protecting women’s rights, and we gave that up. We should be held accountable.”
Neumann was skeptical that the situation would improve in the future. “Whatever is possible is going to be in small deals: getting a little bit of reform for some kind of payoff.”
… and lingering questions
The general conclusion was that lessons for PD and beyond have been “observed” but not “learned.” Crocker said the Washington Post Afghanistan papers, published a year ago, contain “a trove of important lessons to be learned,” but needs distillation. “We need to find a way to get this organized and presented in a way to [speak to] important policy makers.” Both agreed that Afghanistan is not the last “messy situation where there is no clear-cut victory.”
Bishop, reflecting on the program recalled an article he authored in 2018 posing many questions based on a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, articulated the need for more detailed reflection by officers who worked on public diplomacy there over the years.
And for Afghanistan, an uncertain future
Later yesterday, after watching First Monday Forum, I heard an NPR interview with Wazhma Frogh, co-founder of the Women and Peace Studies Organization in Afghanistan and a member of the Afghan Women’s Network. Frogh was almost cheerfully defiant of Afghanistan’s new rulers, noting that a new generation of Afghan women “will not unlearn” how to read and think for themselves.
Paying due respect to the experienced diplomats, I’m inclined to think beyond the crisis-comms spin of “strategic communications” and to wonder about the accumulation of educational and training programs conducted by State, DoD, USAID and other U.S. agencies over two decades. Yes, those programs are now halted and many of the beneficiaries who remained are now targeted. And yet, a fragile Taliban government faces overwhelming challenges merely to preserve their hold on the nation. How will a new urban generation that has seen the outside world shape Afghanistan in the longer term?
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service and seven years in the private sector. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More