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Possible troop withdrawal from Afghanistan met with criticism, cautious optimism in the Inland Northwest

January 29, 2019

Withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan in a deal with the Taliban would be a mistake, said Ryan Crocker, a Spokane native and former top Middle East diplomat in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations.

“There’s no indication the administration has thought through this at any level. They just want to get out,” said Crocker, who served as U.S. ambassador to the country for both Bush and Obama, on Monday, as news broke the Trump administration is working on a deal for a complete troop withdrawal.

“In getting out, it’s just not going to be very pretty,” he continued.

Zalmay Khalilzad, Crocker’s successor as Afghanistan ambassador and President Donald Trump’s pick as special envoy to the country, told the New York Times that progress had been made with the fundamentalist group on peace talks. Trump, like Obama before him, has promised to end the 17-year conflict in Afghanistan that began shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, referring to the war as “a complete disaster” as candidate for president.

But Crocker warned that dealing with the Taliban would undo much of the humanitarian work on behalf of Afghan women and girls, who had been subjected to strict religious rules prior to American involvement, violations of which resulted in public flogging or execution. He also said the talks bore the hallmarks of the peace discussions with North Vietnam in Paris in 1972 that led to the eventual exit of U.S. troops from Vietnam.

“We’re not negotiating from a position of strength, to say the very least,” Crocker said. “This type of negotiation, right after the president has said he wants to cut the force in Afghanistan in half, you’re basically negotiating a surrender.”

There are those who remain hopeful the talks could lead to lasting peace for a war-torn country that has been fighting since the days of Soviet occupation in the 1980s.

Adbul Basir, 28, moved from Kabul, Afghanistan, to Spokane in 2015. On a return visit in 2017, five of his relatives died in a bombing at a mosque, a reminder of the recurring violence that he grew up experiencing.

Basir said the country wants peace, and that he is hopeful the talks would lead to a ceasefire.

“Everybody is hungry that this works,” he said. “I’m hoping, and everyone’s hoping – I believe around the world everybody hopes that this game would end one day, and everyone in the world would live in peace.”

Michael Baumgartner, Spokane County treasurer and a former civilian contractor who worked fighting the drug trade in Afghanistan, advocated for ending the war when he ran for U.S. Senate in 2012. Baumgartner on Monday called news of the peace talks “a welcome step” but said a deal would have to address concerns about Afghanistan becoming a training ground for future terrorist groups absent the U.S. presence.

“I don’t think it will be the end of America having national security threats from them,” Baumgartner said.

Afghanistan served as a base for al-Qaida before the September 11 attacks.

Khalilzad, in a series of tweets Saturday morning, said peace plans “must include an intra-Afghan dilaogue and comprehensive ceasefire.” That’s an apparent reference to concerns the Afghanistan government has not been involved in the peace talks to this point. The Taliban see that government as illegitimate.

The conflict in Afghanistan has claimed 2,351 American lives since hostilities with U.S. forces began in October 2001, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Michael Weigley served two deployments in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marine Corps in 2009 and 2011, helping train local police forces to keep order in the country.

Weigley, 29, said he hadn’t been following the news out of Afghanistan this weekend that a troop withdrawal might be in the works. The end goal makes sense, the Washington State University graduate said, even given the political reality of negotiating with the enemy.

“It’s not a perfect world,” Weigley said. “Will I feel like my time was wasted? No.”

Weigley, who left the Marine Corps as a corporal after serving five years, said what the people of Afghanistan need is guaranteed access to education.

“These outside cities, when they’re running on, ‘What is it I’m going to have for dinner tonight?’ it doesn’t matter what the government is,” he said.

Crocker said he understood the desire from the current administration to get out of Afghanistan. He saw it, too, from the Obama White House. But the commitment of money and the military is worth it, he said.

“I get we’re all sick of the war,” Crocker said. “But at the same time, we’ve got some pretty important equities there, both our values and our national security interest.”

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