Introduction: Dear viewers of Sheesha Media, today, it is my pleasure to host Mr. Ambassador Ronald Neumann in an exclusive interview with Sheesha Media. We will hear from Mr. Neumann’s impressions and experiences, especially regarding Afghanistan.
Royesh: Mr. Ambassador, we have a typical opening in Sheesha Media that begins with a brief flashback to your personal life. Where were you born and raised, and what made you develop a lifelong attachment to Afghanistan?
Ambassador Neumann: I was born in Washington DC while my father was in the army in World War II, but I grew up in California. I can’t say I had a lifetime attachment [to Afghanistan]. But in 1976, when I was finishing graduate school, my father [Robert Neumann, professor of political science] was named Ambassador to Afghanistan.
After finishing graduate school, I had three and a half months break before I had to report to the army. Therefore, I traveled to Afghanistan with my wife. I did not grow up in Afghanistan but came as a young married man. We traveled all over Afghanistan to Herat, Kandahar, and Lashkargah [Helmand] and drove to Hazarajat to see Band-e Amir of Bamiyan. I have been to Badakhshan, Amoo River, and Pamirs as well.
I had already decided to become a diplomat following my father. I passed a test. I had not put focus on the Muslim world at all in my studies, and Afghanistan and its culture provided certain excitement and interested me.
Royesh: We will review every detail of these attachments as your impressions. Before that, let me ask about your personal life. Can you share more about your parents, their education, and their professional backgrounds? As typical American parents, how did they shape your upbringing and approach to parenting?
Ambassador Neumann: I don’t think my parents were particularly typical Americans.
My father grew up in Austria. When finishing his undergraduate college studies, he was offered a half scholarship to a Summer Program in Geneva and told that if he waited a year, he could have a full scholarship. The family decided it would be better if he went, so they found the money, and he went to the summer program in Geneva. He met my mother, an American student at the same program in Geneva.
At the end of the summer, they were engaged. My father came back to Austria. The Nazis invaded Austria, and he was put in prison. He spent a year in prison and a concentration camp. He finally got released, got to America, and married my mother.
My mother was not a typical person either. Because, she was born in India. Her father worked for fifteen years as an Engineer in India, not all at once but in different periods before World War I, after World War I, and after Independence. My great aunt on my mother’s side wrote a book on Middle East. In fact, my mother’s first job after college was to go to Estanbul which called Constantinople at the time. She become secretary to my great aunt, the secretary general of the World YWCA.
So, it was not a typical family in that respect. But I grew up in California, and my father taught at the University of California Los Angeles. We started a program for foreign service officers and American diplomats to have a year at school/university. So our house was often where you would find diplomats and foreigners from various countries coming in and out. Therefore, that certainly shaped my life, but I can’t call it a typical American upbringing.
Royesh: But anyway, they had been a typical American parent. And maybe, they could also have a particular impact on your type of parenting. How have you been following their footprints? Can you share that as well?
Ambassador Neumann: My father taught twice as a Fulbright professor in France. Once when I was very young in Paris for a year. We also lived in Bordeaux and Strasbourg for a year when he was teaching. He taught several times in the summer. Travel was an inevitable part of my upbringing,
Royesh: Your father, Ambassador Robert Neumann, has served as the US Ambassador to Afghanistan. Can you share with us how he was appointed and why he was chosen for that specific country then?
Ambassador Neumann: Why [referring to why Robert Neumann was chosen as US Ambassador to Afghanistan] is a question mark. He was not a professional diplomat. He would have been, but in those days, we had engaged limitations in joining the foreign service. By the time he got his citizenship in WWII, he was too old to enter. He was Republican, but he was not in favor of World War. He helped with the campaign for President Johnson so as not to support the cold war. President Johnson ended up choosing him as the US Ambassador to Afghanistan. Why he chose Afghanistan, I do not know.
My father had traveled extensively in middle eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel but had not gone to Afghanistan. But anyway, that was the choice. After the Johnson Administration, President Richard Nixon kept my father as the Ambassador to Afghanistan. I guess he [Robert Neumann] did an excellent job because then-President Gerald Ford sent him as the US Ambassador to Morroco. As a Republican, he was out during the Carter years. But then, President Ronald Reagan appointed him as the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. So he was a political appointee who served four presidents, three posts, and two parties.
Royesh: Back then, do you recall if the same procedures were followed for appointing ambassadors to certain countries or if there were more straightforward ways to do it?
Ambassador Neumann: Well, the procedures were the same where you had to be confirmed by the Senate. The follow-up procedure was the same. I don’t think there was as much political controversy around. Now, often nominees are being held up for their confirmation to use the hold up to press the administration to do something that has nothing to do with the person or the country they are going to. That was not happening so much then.
Royesh: Your father became one of the most reliable sources on afghanistanology [Afghanistan Studies]. While serving in Afghanistan, how did he get interested in studying Afghanistan, and what led him to write papers and books on the country?
Ambassador Neumann: Well, he is a trained academic and political scientist. He stayed in Afghanistan for six and a half years and had extensive experience. After he retired from the diplomatic service, he remained involved because the Russians had invaded Afghanistan by then. There was a track to a dialogue between the Americans and the Russians but not officials. One of the things that they discussed in that dialogue was Afghanistan. So for several years, my father participated as one of the significant participants players in the conversation. That would obviously keep him involved in discussions of Afghanistan in background briefings.
Royesh: Did he conduct any specific type of research on Afghanistan back in those days?
Ambassador Neumann: He knew a lot of people, but he was not doing research.
Royesh: Did he travel to different regions of Afghanistan as you did?
Ambassador Neumann: Yes, he traveled all over Afghanistan. Those were peaceful days. I have pictures of him and my mother in Helmand province. Once when I was doing a reception for returning Fulbright students in Kabul, one Afghan woman brought me a picture of my mother and her mother in Kunduz, and I think it was back in 1968. In fact, at one point, when I traveled to Nuristan, I was talking to an Afghan official. We figured that my father was the last American Ambassador to Nuristan. Indeed, he had been around the country.
Royesh: You talked about your travels to different parts of Afghanistan when you were a young and curious American. When you look at that time, what differences do you find between Afghanistan of those times, Afghanistan you saw later [as Ambassador], and Afghanistan now?
Ambassador Neumann: Well, of course, the most significant difference is that that was a time of peace. We traveled all over Afghanistan without worrying about security. There were a few things you weren’t supposed to do. For instance, It was not a good idea to camp by the side of the road in some parts of the country. But generally, it was safe to travel. My wife and I did not worry about taking a car and driving from Kandahar to Kabul. There was no security threat.
I remember there was one Afghan army patrol we met. There were three soldiers with one rifle. It was a quiet time. That was, of course, the most significant difference. It was also interesting to reflect that Afghanistan was just in the first decade of development when I was there. People have exaggerated how much growth occurred in the 50s and 60s. It wasn’t all that much. But then, it was brand new in Afghanistan, and it was exciting.
Royesh: Did you have any chance at those times to personally meet King Zahir Shah at the palace, outside the palace, or at the embassy?
Ambassador Neumann: I did not meet him then. Later, when I returned, I called on Zahir Shah and Sardar Abdul Wali. My brother and Sardar Abdul Wali had been friends. My much younger brother went to high school in Kabul. He and Sardar Abdul Wali wrote and shared poems.
Royesh: Did you hear anything special from your father about Zahir Shah? Sometimes, he would compare Zahir with the rest of his peers and stakeholders back in Iran and some of the middle eastern and African countries.
Ambassador Neumann: He talked about it with me, but it is hard to remember years later. Also, I have read some of his reporting that were classified at first but then has been declassified. I know that there were food shortages in the last two years that my father was in Afghanistan (1975-1976). He felt that the government was ineffective in dealing with the issues and was building resentment and that there was a possibility for trouble because of the government’s poor record in responding to the problems.
Royesh: One of the paradoxical aspects of Zahir Shah, as it is talked about him in Afghanistan, is that he was very young when he witnessed the assassination of his father. He ruled the country for over four decades. He was a person who did not show a sense of vengefulness or retaliation against people. He was mostly trying to be a calm person. It is said that when he heard about Maiwandwal’s assassination by Dawood Khan, he said that “I tried for forty years to wipe out the memory of bloodshed from Afghanistan, especially by the stakeholders, but it is now done in that sense.” What is your impression of this judgment about him? Do you think that Zahir Shah was a person with a non-violent approach and a non-typical tyrant?
Ambassador Neumann: Remember that I didn’t know him personally; therefore, my impression of him is superficial. I would not call him a Democrat, but he was apparently a gentleman. He certainly didn’t favor violence. Although there were repressions then, he seemed to try to calm things down.
Creating the constitution in 1964 and establishing a prime minister was a way of considering some public opinion. Politically, it was also a clever move because the pressure then would come on the parliament and the prime minister more than the king. The king appointed the prime minister, but when people got too unhappy, he changed the prime minister. This kept all the pressure from being directed to him. There was a certain amount of responsiveness to popular pressure. I am not a scholar of that period, and I don’t think my views are exceptionally reliable for accurate judgments.
Royesh: You have been on and off following different stakeholders of Afghanistan, such as Zahir Shah, Dawood Khan, Taraki, Hafizullah Amin, Karmal, Dr. Najibullah, Burhanuddin Rabbani, Mullah Omar, Karzai, Ashraf Ghani, and now Mullah Hebatullah. In general, when you compare these figures, what are some of the similarities and differences? Do you see any significant differences that distinguish at least one or some of them from the rest?
Ambassador Neumann: That question probably requires years of study and much more reflection. One similarity between pretty much everybody of the leaders I knew was that they did not easily share power. They didn’t give power away, and they kept it for themselves. This tendency [not to share power] prevented unification. A problem that still exists today. Frankly, it was one of the strengths of the Taliban.
Suppose you compare the Taliban, who have remained unified over all the years of war. You can see that some of the Taliban leaders did not agree with the decision on girls’ education, but it didn’t force them apart. Let’s compare that with the years of Mujahideen. Hezbe Islami was splitting. Jamiat-e Islami was made up of multiple groups that would come and go. There were the Hazara parties which were not one but seven parties. So, this demand to be individual leadership, separate community, and have resources to maintain leadership was a defining characteristic of XXXX. Karzai learned to play on that view, and many others to keep him in power, and Ashraf Ghani did not learn to play on and tried to centralize power. He failed.
Royesh: The recent two presidents of Afghanistan, Mr. Karzai and Mr. Ghani were people you had personal attachments with. You saw them in private and public settings. You witnessed them when they were also closely attached to American policies. How do you compare these two figures? One is regarded as a primarily traditional leader, and the other was called a so-called modern person who had written a book on fixing failed states. How do you compare these two people in terms of intellectuality and personality?
Ambassador Neumann: I am still in touch with Mr. Karzai occasionally. I like him. We had our arguments, but overall, I worked along. He is a very skillful politician. He had a very skillful way of dealing with people. I saw and remembered him primarily from his first elected term. There are some criticisms in his second term. Some of the things he did may be correct, but it didn’t seem so much.
Mr. Karzai was not a person of the institution. I remember talking with him about this once. I remember him saying, “Well, Mr. Ambassador, someday, I may have institutions, but today I only have men,” He was probably correct. He was cautious about what was going on in provinces. He was much more inclined to believe what somebody he knew told him. He did not have much faith in written reports from commissions or groups. So staff process was not much necessary for Mr. Karzai.
From many of those aspects, I think we can say that he was closer to a more traditional ruler in his instincts, with one exception: he did not take any interest in the military, either the army or the police. I think he regarded them partly as foreign creations that the foreigners dominated. Karzai thought there was no point in pretending to lead them because foreigners led them. I didn’t ask him if that was the correct point of view. And it was some justice to it. I would say he did not take ownership of the army. He was concerned about expanding education and women’s rights, but he was less concerned about institutions.
Mr. Ghani, when he came to the office, he was a Western-educated technocrat. He could not delegate. He was an intellectual who always had a theory about everything. He was, from all accounts, a difficult push to work for. He became the president with a lot of support. Although, there was a lot of bitterness in the election, and Mr. Abdullah Abdullah felt that the election was fraudulent. Both sides were fraudulent. The question is whose fraud was bigger. Still, a political deal was made to share power. I was not the Ambassador back then, but on one of my trips to Afghanistan at that time, what I experienced talking to people was the general feeling of relief that the crisis was over and there was a political deal.
One of the disappointments that I had was that Mr. Ghani never stopped fighting to try to take all the power. He had an agreement with Mr. Abdullah. He could have said that you [Dr. Abdullah] take certain issues and work on them or take certain ministries and give me your candidates. However, everything was a fight. It took forever to establish the government. Mr. Ghani was strange. When he was the finance minister, he did a great deal to build the institution of the Finance Ministry.
As president, he kept establishing parallel structures and commissions, weakening his ministers so that he would not strengthen any institutions through his practice. That was also a disappointment. You were living in Kabul, and I visited once or twice a year. You lived through all these. You have your own views and should say if they are different.
Royesh: At Bonn Conference, the international community helped Afghanistan to initiate a new era. That was completely different. Back then, it was called the new Afghanistan with a new history and generation. A new direction was introduced to Afghanistan. For the first time, Afghanistan was exposed to the modern norms of life with democratic approaches to solving the issue of power in the country. However, it is said that the Afghan stakeholders, including Zalmai Khalilzad, formed the basis of this new era of Afghanistan on ethnic politics.
These ethnic politics have a power hierarchy between different ethnic communities, and their representation is synchronized with fights and struggles for their rights and privileges. This hierarchy was one of the leading causes of the failure of democracy and civil growth in Afghanistan. What is your impression of this? Is ethnic politics still a big issue? An issue the new generation should look at it as a challenge. Or do you think it is an issue related to Afghanistan’s past, and we are not more concerned about ethnic politics in Afghanistan?
Ambassador Neumann: You ask difficult questions. I think one needs to remember a couple of things about Bonn. First, America invaded Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda, and it was against the Taliban because the Taliban shielded al-Qaeda. They did not go to Afghanistan to build a country and democracy. Once it knocked out the Taliban, the problem for the United States and the international community was how do you get out. How do you leave?
The Bonn Conference was about establishing a political roadmap, but it had to deal with the reality of who had power in Afghanistan. So, I think it is perfectly correct to say that many of the discussions in Bonn ended up being a division of power between representatives of the ethnic communities. You can make that criticism, and it is perfectly fair. But then, you have to tell what the alternative was. What do you think the Americans and others could have done to build a completely different system from any existing power structure in Afghanistan?
Royesh: I am sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Ambassador. It is not a question from the American side but rather from the Afghan side. When the international community invaded Afghanistan by any means, it opened a new era for the country. We had only two choices. We had to base power on either ethnic politics or citizenship politics. Ethnic communities and representations exist as a reality, and you cannot ignore them. However, there should be a basis for power in which people should concentrate more on citizens rather than ethnicity, ethnic communities, and ethnic representations.
In the Bonn Conference, these architects (as we call them), such as Zalmai Khalilzad, focused more on the traditional hierarchy of power in Afghanistan, which based power on ethnic division. This deviated from all the directions there. Therefore, the Americans and the international community cannot be blamed as they were present in Afghanistan as a facilitator, supporter, and protector. This comes as the Afghan stakeholders could do more the same as the Germans did after WWII, the Japanese after WWII, or South Korea. There were many similarities between these countries and Afghanistan during the Bonn Conference.
Ambassador Neumann: That’s probably a question only an Afghan can answer. However, I would say one thing. I observed in Afghanistan as an Ambassador, particularly in 2005-2006, that some of the ethnic control was breaking down. People who had been at war were making deals with each other. Members of the parliament who had been violently opposed to each other and fighting in the Mujahideen period were now working together. My memory of the first parliamentary election in 2005 is that several of the prominent commanders did not do very well. Mohaqeq did not have as many deputies as we thought he would get. Several of the others got fewer deputies. But I think part of what happened was two things. Once security worsened, it tightened the ethnic grip because people felt it was the only safe place for their ethnic group.
The other problem was that corruption got bigger and worse. Then corruption tended to favor the up and down lines in ethnic groups, not only within the ethnic groups but within individual leaders. Initially, there was some breaking down. There was more room. I think the electoral system was not well chosen to break it down. But whether a better electoral system would have made a difference is much harder to say. It was a very centralized government with a very weak president. Mr. Karzai had a lot of power under the constitution. He had no control force. He didn’t have much money. He did not have an independent political base that was all his. So, he had to maneuver among other strong people, and the way to maneuver was to give offices, take offices away, and let corruption go on. But I don’t think he had a lot of choices because we didn’t give him any help during that period.
Royesh: In your book “The Other War: Winning and Losing in Afghanistan,” based on my understanding and impression, you have highlighted five key points, including the lack of personnel, the coherent strategy in the US, the importance of understanding of the Afghanistan history, the impact of corruption on Afghan government especially the role of Pakistan, and so on. But in general, based on my impression, your book also conveys a specific type of optimism for Afghanistan. If you highlight some of these issues, it is not a complicated issue, and you can find solutions to get out of that. After the fall of Afghanistan by the Taliban, do you still have the same optimism and believe that we can have better solutions for Afghanistan by addressing those issues [mentioned in his book]?
Ambassador Neumann: I am sad to say that I am not optimistic in the short run. In the long run, I have no idea. Afghanistan is famous for having surprises, so that I won’t guess. In the short run, the Taliban seemed convinced of their unorthodox approach to Islamic Shariah, although any other country does not follow it in the Muslim world on women. They are not paying any attention to outsiders. They don’t seem much strict in their resistance groups. And I don’t think the international community or the Americans have any political weight to create change.
At some point, I think pressures inside Afghanistan will change because people will not be happy to live the way they are living now. I don’t know when that change will be or how it will come about. So, for now, I think America can do what it can to keep people fed, have humanitarian help, and keep the pressure on to have better rights for women and a more inclusive government. I don’t think America has the pressure to bring that about. People say there should be a new ‘Bonn’ and a new agreement, and somehow the US should produce this. This is magical thinking. We couldn’t produce it without thousands of troops and millions of dollars. We gave it away when we didn’t have to, but we had given it away.
Royesh: Even though the situation has changed as a civic educator, I have kept my contact with students. I am talking with them. Some tips keep my spirits high and make me optimistic about Afghanistan. One, despite the complicated structure of the country with the ethnic and village problems and prejudice, lots of corruption, and despotism, there has not been a voice for the disintegration or separatism of Afghanistan. Even during the civil war or the Taliban, no ethnicity or political group raised its voice for separatism and disintegration. This comes in Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Iraq; there are separatist movements. Secondly, there is something called the ‘hidden characteristic of the Afghan population,’ which means that Afghans easily forget or neglect some of their issues or disputes.
Most of the time, you can see this in the relations between ethnic groups and communities. They can quickly get along well and become friends. Alliances in the form of Hazara-Pashtun, Hazara-Tajik, and Tajik-Pashtun can be formed easily between political leaders. This is one of the characteristics of the Afghan population. The other point is about the war.
In the last 40 years, most people in Afghanistan have experienced war, and non-violence approaches have become a part of their learning process. This is also helpful. The fourth point, which is very important about Afghanistan, is that no barrier or obstacle can be regarded as a system to resist or fight against democracy, human rights, and civil norms of life. We have such systems in Iran, middle eastern countries, Pakistan, and Iraq. In Afghanistan, we have groups with some tendencies or ideas in their minds to resist democracy and civil norms of life, but it cannot be regarded as a system. The fourth component is Afghanistan’s young generation, especially in the last twenty years. A generation that accounts for more than 75% of the Afghan population and has no attachment to the past. They suffer from the past, but they are the products of the new era of Afghanistan.
A generation that thinks, works for the future, and establishes its relations with the international community, especially its peers worldwide. These factors help me, as a civic educator, share my optimism with my students. I tell them that when you have a strategic view and are not impatient to do everything in a short time as a politician, you might have some possibility to change or shape the country as you want. This is my perspective as a civic educator who ran a school in Kabul. As a politician, you have been personally engaged with these issues. I might have a rather intellectual view of the situation that may be deemed a fantasy sometimes. As a realist who lived, interacted, and dealt with Afghanistan, do you share this optimism in the long run with civil activists like me, or do you have a rather pessimistic perception about Afghanistan in the long run?
Ambassador Neumann: Well, part of it is a matter of what your timeframe is. What time are you looking at? There are an enormous number of creative Afghans. During the last twenty years, many people learned to think differently. They learned to have more of what I would call modern views. They learned about the modern state, particularly younger men and women. I cannot say that I am optimistic or pessimistic. I hope that the seeds of positive change grow and continue to have influence. It is hard to educate people who are only tactically not educated to think. I don’t know how this will all work out. I do believe it is enormously important to keep educating people. Computers and distance learning can do everything to keep educating women in Afghanistan and men. It is tremendously important. If you have a future, you need skilled people to make it. There will be changes in the Taliban, too, because they have to run a government now.
I don’t know if you saw it, but there were some interesting interviews in the Afghan Analyst Network with some younger Taliban. They complained about how they should be in the office for eight hours each day. They have to study English and computers. I don’t know what happened to somebody who came from Jihad and is learning English and computer. It will work on their minds somehow, but I don’t know how. In that sense, I am not pessimistic because everything is hopeless. It is never hopeless, but I don’t think change will be easy or rapid.
Royesh: In Afghanistan, I think we are in the process of a significant transformation. An old traditional community with a very restrictive structure will be exposed to the modern norms of life. This is a significant change to happen.
Ambassador Neumann: This is an ancient historical problem. I think Ibn Khaldun wrote about how people in the cities become soft. Then hard men came out of the desert, took power, and became soft in the cities. That’s the 14th century. Now, you have some very hard men in the Taliban, but there are already some cracks. Many of the Taliban leaders are sending their girls to school. Therefore, what they are saying and what they are doing are not all the same. There are differences and cracks. I don’t think they will go anywhere quickly. I believe there is a reason on a historical basis to say that things will not just stay the way they are.
Royesh: I think Afghanistan is much different in other aspects. You do not have a country that is restricted in its border. Now, you have millions of Afghans who live in other countries across the world. Afghans are much more democratic, progressed, and open. They have ties with their families, friends, and kin back in Afghanistan. They send money, thoughts, and aspirations inside Afghanistan. Therefore, Afghanistan is now widely connected with the rest of the world. This impacts the Taliban as well.
The Taliban in the mountains differs from the Taliban sitting in the office and interacting with people. This is a factor having the potential to bring change. I think the international community’s role is significant as Afghanistan is still a project that can be dealt with because of its humanistic aspects and more. This comes as there are also lots of misunderstandings and misconceptions about Afghanistan. In your view, what is the major misunderstanding of the Americans about Afghanistan? What misunderstandings can influence the policymakers in the United States towards Afghanistan, the media, and the academia?
Ambassador Neumann: Misunderstandings are mostly the misunderstandings of the past trying to reduce the twenty years to a few simple sentences. I don’t like to say this, as it makes me sad, but the American government is not thinking about Afghanistan. Afghanistan simply lost its importance to the United States. It is passed. I was in Texas some months ago, giving a lecture. Part of the lecture was on a different subject, but we had a very open question period after dinner. There was not one question out of two hundred people about Afghanistan. Questions were all about Russia, Ukraine, and China. It may be very difficult for Afghans to understand how they can not be interested and focused on Afghanistan, the center of their lives. But America has moved on. One misunderstanding is not to walk to understand that it is still important. We are likely to have trouble in the world coming out of Afghanistan because of the mess we left behind.
Royesh: What would be your recommendations for Afghanistan’s young generation and politicians outside the power circle who are helpless but valuable? Politicians who have at least some certain amount of influence on the situation in Afghanistan. Addressing some issues, what would be your recommendations for the youth and the Afghan stakeholders, including the Taliban?
Ambassador Neumann: If the politicians of a community do not have something, they are unlikely to get it. They will not significantly influence foreign governments as long as they all have different views. I hear people talk about unity declarations, but those declarations are principles. There is no unity about how you are going to make a decision. They may have a commission, but unity means if someone is making a decision, everybody abides by the decision. Faithfully, I believe that most of the prominent politicians of the past lost their influence. I don’t hear from younger Afghans any great sense of respect for them. For young Afghans, who am I to advise people?
I would say a lot of people, including educated ones in Afghanistan, will not be able to get out easily. I wish we were taking more to the United States, but we are not, and that’s a fact. So we will have to find how to make their lives there. I don’t know how that’s going to be possible. I don’t have any advice. I know that’s the situation. I can say a few things about people here [USA] in the diaspora who have come as refugees, and many of them are having a tough time. I understand that. I would say you have never given up on being an Afghan, but you have to make your life here in the United States now. This is a problem that many refugee communities have had. People come, they are educated, and they have skills. They want to work at a job that uses their skills. A job that kind of levels their expectations, and they can’t find that. They have to accept that. They have to accept that part of the American dream is the ability to climb high.
Also, part of the American dream is that many people start low. We were talking about my father. He came as a refugee. He washed dishes at a restaurant. A job that was not too good for him. You are close to the community than I am. I hear that there are jobs in parts of the country that people don’t want to go to those jobs. This is natural. They want to stay close to their family and friends. That means they are clustered in places like Washington, DC, San Francisco, or Los Angeles, where they will not find good jobs. Places in which they find costly living conditions. There are other places to go with lots of jobs. This is hard at first, I am sorry, but it is also what many refugee communities have gone through. The situation where the parents took bad and lousy jobs to make a place for themselves and for their children to go to. I wish there were an easier way. Since there is no easier way, get on with it.
Royesh: The final question will be about the final topic in Afghanistan. You came to Afghanistan in July 2021, just one month before the fall of Afghanistan by the Taliban. I am sure you met Mr. Ghani as well. He was the last president of Afghanistan who fled. And now, as a fugitive president, he is accused of many things he could do. In your assessment, did Mr. Ghani have anything left in Afghanistan for himself to rely on, resist, or stay in the palace, or was it the ultimate choice for him to flee?
Ambassador Neumann: That’s one of those questions we will argue about forever. The Doha agreement and then America’s withdrawal all took much of the confidence out of the Afghan army. President Ghani made many changes in the military that weakened the army. At one point, many people say there was a deal that the Taliban would have respected for a pause and a more structured transfer of power. And that brook down because Mr. Ghani ran away. Others will say that even if the Taliban made it, they couldn’t control their people; they were coming in the city. I can’t answer those questions. I do know that there were a couple of things that a great many people, including me, thought Mr. Ghani ought to do, and he did not.
When I saw this, I told him that you could not hold everything, so you have to have a plan for what you would give up and what you will hold. A realistic plan. You have to take responsibility, announce the plan, and it has to be your plan. If you don’t take responsibility for these decisions, your generals will not take responsibility because they will be afraid that you will blame them when something is lost. So, they won’t give it up. They won’t have a strategy to give up certain things. The only way is that you can hold everything. You can hold some things; to do that, you have to announce what they are. He said that he had a plan. I don’t know if he had a plan, but he never announced it. He could give clarity instead of these false statements. Some clarifications could be hard, but he could have done it.
The next thing he said was that he would not leave and would die in the palace. I contrasted that with Mr. Karzai, who has always said he will not leave Afghanistan. I remember Mr. Karzai said he did not want his son “Mirwais” to grow up in Pakistan or India. He wanted him to grow up in Afghanistan. He did stay, and so did Dr. Abdullah. I respect them for that commitment to the country. Mr. Ghani ran away. Would it have been better if he had stayed? I do not know. I have no idea about that. He ran away so afraid that he said he was prepared to die.
Royesh: A final message from you for the people of Afghanistan and those engaged with Afghanistan!
Ambassador Neumann: I am retired from diplomacy. I am not in power. I don’t want people to lose hope, but I am very reluctant to give them false hope. I know that people are living tough lives. I don’t know if I have a message. I like to provide a notice of comfort, but I don’t know how. Except for the old saying that while there is life, there is hope. Don’t give up, and use any opportunity you have. And for the people in the diaspora, I would say that get on with making in your life. I am not telling you to give up on Afghanistan. You are thinking about Afghanistan. Keep that, but get on with your new life. Stop hoping for a parachute.
Royesh: Thanks, Mr. Ambassador. I was pleased to have you in this exclusive talk with Sheesha Media.
Ambassador Neumann: Thank you. It was a pleasure to be with you, and I am sorry if anything I have said might have hurt anybody’s feelings.