By Patricia Lee Sharpe
When I saw the name of Barack Obama’s choice to become the next U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan I was (and am) a little worried. It’s Ryan Crocker.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s clear that Crocker did a bang up job in Iraq. Well, let’s put it this way: he presided over the redefinitions of success that allowed the U.S. to go far toward extricating itself militarily, although the monstrous new embassy complex bodes ill for an ideal minimization of the U.S. presence. The most obvious “success,” of course, is that Saddam Hussain is no more. After that the tally gets pretty murky. Democracy isn’t thriving. The streets aren’t exactly safe. Sectarianism is rife. The Kurdish question hasn’t been resolved. Iran hasn’t been marginalized. Etc. Etc. Etc. But the U.S. role has shrunk considerably. And Crocker deserves credit for his role in that process.
This excellent record doesn’t mean that he’s automatically the best man to head the U.S. mission in Afghanistan as the time to draw down (significantly or cosmetically) forces approaches. Afghanistan, it must be emphasized, in no way whatsoever resembles Iraq. In fact, to the extent that Crocker may imagine that his experiences Bagdad are largely transferrable to Kabul, he may be the worst man.
Crocker, of course, is no stranger to the U.S. Senate, which, as I recall, received his testimony regarding Iraq with respect and appreciation. It’s unlikely that the Senate will fail to approve his being posted to Kabul.
Let’s hope, however, that the predictably courteous questioning includes some probing that elicits Crocker’s clear understanding that he’ll be operating in a new world. Sure, people in both countries are Muslims, mostly, but the mix and nature of Islamic traditions aren't the same, and that’s only the beginning. The history is different. The culture is different. The degree of modernization is different. And the neighbors (Iran excepted) are different. Moreover, unless “U.S. interests” are defined at the lowest common denominator having to do with global security, it’s hard to see how realistic outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan could be usefully comparable at any level of political organization.
I might finally suggest another question for the senators to pursue: the extent to which Crocker agrees with the out-going Secretary of Defense to the effect that the U.S. needs to be committed to a major military presence in Afghanistan virtually until the cows come home.