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Departed U.S. Ambassador To Afghanistan On Prospects Of Peace With Taliban


It's been nearly two decades since the U.S. entered Afghanistan to drive out the Taliban and the terrorists it shielded. Now the U.S. is negotiating with the Taliban, in fits and starts, as the Taliban regains ground in Afghanistan and the U.S. struggles with how and when to leave the country. This is the situation that John Bass left Monday. Until then, he was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. He's now in Washington and reflected on the ups and downs of those U.S.-Taliban negotiations.

JOHN BASS: I think wider Afghan society is waiting to see if the Taliban are prepared to act differently and to sit down and try to work out a way to resolve differences within the society through something other than violence.

CORNISH: Bass says he's not directly involved in talks with the Taliban, which have been derailed in the past by that violence. The negotiations are led by another ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. But as the top U.S. official in Afghanistan, I asked Bass where he thought the talks were headed.

BASS: I think it's always difficult to tell with a group like the Taliban what their decision calculus is. But, again, you know, the Eid cease-fire in 2018, in which Afghans for the first time in 18 years enjoyed three days of peace across the country, demonstrates what is possible when the Taliban and the government listen to you and respond to that overwhelming desire of the Afghan people for peace.

CORNISH: I want to ask you about escalating tensions with Iran, in part because there's been reporting about how Iran supported the Taliban in different ways - offering its leaders and families refuge from American and Afghan forces, allowing smuggling networks that financed the Taliban to pass through Iran and the concern that they could eventually provide sophisticated weaponry to the Taliban. How does this haunt the talks?

BASS: It's really up to Ambassador Khalilzad to offer a view on what impact, if any, that has on the talks themselves. What I would say is, unfortunately, we've seen in the last six months Iran's use of incentivizing of proxy forces in Afghanistan to try to kill Americans and make it more difficult for us to make progress broadly, to achieve the goals we all share, which is to ensure that Afghanistan in the future is not a place from which the United States, allies or other countries face the prospect of terrorist attacks.

CORNISH: What role does the U.S. see for the Taliban in a future Afghanistan?

BASS: That's up to the Afghan government and the Afghan people to decide in the course of negotiations.

CORNISH: So the U.S. is willing for that to be a question mark? And I ask because, originally, the idea of going to war in Afghanistan was to go after the Taliban to prevent them from harboring terrorists.

BASS: We have said, any number of times in recent years, there's no military solution to this conflict, and this conflict will only end through a political settlement. And that political settlement, by definition, has to come from within Afghan society, between the major parties to the conflict, which are the Afghan government and the Taliban.

CORNISH: When The Washington Post recently ran a series of stories detailing how kind of the U.S. military and political officials kept providing rosy and upbeat assessments on Afghanistan, year after year, when the reality was essentially a long-term stalemate. Given that, how should Americans trust U.S. policy now?

BASS: I think every citizen has an obligation, to a degree, to do enough research or do enough reading, thinking, listening to make their own informed opinions about what they see happening in a country where U.S. forces are engaged, where we sacrifice, see the sacrifice of...

CORNISH: But what they would see right now - right? - is 2,400 military fatalities. They'd see the $133 billion in appropriations. They'd see a resurgent Taliban. They wouldn't see a success.

BASS: I think it's important to look back at where Afghanistan was in 2001 and to recognize that societies that were facing enormous development challenges even before the conflict began and that have experienced 40 years of conflict, those are hard places to make rapid progress. And in some respects, the progress that Afghans have made in this 18 years has been pretty remarkable, given what they deal with every day.

CORNISH: Ambassador Bass, thank you so much for speaking with us.

BASS: Very good to be with you today. Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: That's John Bass. He left his post as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan on Monday. He says he had reached the end of a fixed tour of duty and that his departure was long planned.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.