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Outgoing U.S. Envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan Progress, Dialogue With Taliban

December 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Two years ago, an Afghan peace process was not a realistic prospect for a region plagued by war. Margaret Warner talks to U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman about his role in making contact and engaging in talks with Taliban officials, and what to expect as U.S. prepares to withdraw troops by 2014.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Marc Grossman, who is leaving his post this week, joins me to talk about his time as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and the challenges that lie ahead.

Amb. Grossman, thank you for coming in.

MARC GROSSMAN, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan: Thank you for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you are one of the few — few U.S. officials who have ever met with representatives of the Taliban. So, I want to start right there.

One meeting, I think your first, was with someone who was described as a former aide to the leader, Mullah Omar, back in October, was it, of 2011? What was it like? What was he like?

MARC GROSSMAN: Well, first of all, thank you very much for having me.

You know, it was an experience that was both very productive and very difficult. One of the challenges that Secretary Clinton gave me when we took this job was to see if I couldn’t find and then have this conversation with the Taliban.

And what she said in a very important speech, you will recall, at the Asia Society was a couple of years ago was, of course, you don’t make friends with your — you don’t make peace with your friends; you make peace with your enemies.

And what I did, Margaret, to get ready for that first encounter and those afterwards was I read a lot by people who had been in similar situations in Northern Ireland, in Sri Lanka, in Colombia. And everybody talked about how difficult it was to both fight and talk at the same time.

And yet everybody came to the same conclusion, that if you stick with this, if you believe in it, if you can find someone on the other side to talk to, and you’re successful, less people die.

And so the ambiguities of it, the challenges of it kind of all pale by the possibilities that, if you’re successful, less people die. The other thing I think that’s really important in getting ready for all this is that the only reason that we had these conversations with the Taliban was to open the door for Afghans to talk to other Afghans about the future of Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you this, because the U.S. was snookered once, I think, thinking it was meeting with a representative of the Taliban, and the guy was an impostor.


MARGARET WARNER: How did you determine that this fellow was a genuine representative of the upper echelon to the Taliban?

MARC GROSSMAN: That’s a very fair question.

And what we did was, first of all, we got a personal sense of him, and then I think we both did the same thing to each other. I asked him for certain things. He asked me for certain things.

And when those things got delivered in a way that we felt was legitimate and showed that very much he could ask a question, get some guidance from people senior to him, and bring that guidance back, we thought that we had found somebody worth talking to.

And too bad that, as you had said in the opening, in March 15, we had to end those conversations.

MARGARET WARNER: First of all, what was he looking for? I mean, what did you deduce from what he said and the body language about why he was actually there?

MARC GROSSMAN: Well, I think they were there to see, like we were there, if there might be — if it might be possible, might be possible to develop some confidence between the United States and this insurgent group.

And so one of the jobs that we took upon ourselves was to see if we could design and then carry out a series of confidence-building measures between the two sides.

And, again, I repeat that the only reasons to have those confidence-building measures was to open the door for the Taliban then to talk to the government of Afghanistan.

MARGARET WARNER: So, one of those confidence-building measures was this prisoner exchange we talked about with the Gitmo prisoners and a U.S. soldier. What happened?

MARC GROSSMAN: Well, unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, but, I mean, why? Does one side pull back?

MARC GROSSMAN: Well, I think — believe I don’t want to do anything that might sort of prejudice something in the future, I would say, first of all, that we haven’t made any decisions at all about moving anybody from Guantanamo in that arrangement, first.

The second thing is, it’s very important, I think, for you and the viewers to recognize that whatever we would do would certainly be consistent with all of the laws of the United States and, very importantly also, consultation with Congress. And we consulted with Congress quite a lot on this subject.

MARGARET WARNER: Had a lot to say about releasing people from…

MARC GROSSMAN: Well, they did, and fair enough. And that’s the kind of government we have.

MARGARET WARNER: So, where do prospects stand now, as you leave this post, for some kind of negotiated way out of this war or resolution to this war even as U.S. troops are drawing down?

MARC GROSSMAN: Well, I think it’s very important to step back and again go back to the Asia Society speech and to consider the job that we were given a couple of years ago.

Number one, the first job was to see if it might be possible to create a regional structure for a secure, stable, prosperous Afghanistan inside of a secure, stable, prosperous region. And we set out to do that through various series of international meetings, Istanbul, Bonn, Chicago, and Tokyo, so that Afghans could feel confident that the region would stand behind them.

MARGARET WARNER: But, if I might ask you…


MARGARET WARNER: … do you think now — are talks going to resume?

For instance, one of the new elements is Pakistan, which has been sheltering the Taliban…


MARGARET WARNER: … always saw them as an asset, is now making noises that it might want to midwife something.


MARGARET WARNER: Do you think they’re sincere? If so, what’s changed?

MARC GROSSMAN: Well, one of the things, as I end this responsibility, I was given this task to see if we could have a direct dialogue with the Taliban.

And since March the 15th, that hasn’t been possible. But I think if you look back now two years and you say to yourself, was Afghan peace on the agenda on Afghanistan, in the region, internationally, two years ago, very little. And I think that this — what’s happened here is that there’s been a real effort to create an Afghan peace process.

On Pakistan, in particular, I think one of the things that’s really changed in the last year or so has been the effort by Pakistan to get itself aligned to support this Afghan peace process.

A year ago, there was no way, not possible, systematically, to have Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States talk to one another about peace.

And we created a core group with those three countries. It’s met eight times. So I think there’s a lot of effort on the Pakistani side to support Afghan peace.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think the Pakistanis — but why? Do they suddenly think it would be in their interest to have a peaceful Afghanistan?

MARC GROSSMAN: Well, I think, if you listen to the foreign minister and other Pakistanis who speak, they know, first of all, that chaos in Afghanistan is bad for them.

They know also that 2014, 2014, when this transition that you described is coming, that’s not 20 years from now, it’s not 10 years from now. In diplomatic terms, it’s tomorrow. And so we have signed a strategic partnership agreement with Afghanistan. And the Pakistanis, I think, recognize that. It changes their calculation, perhaps.

But they, I think, are increasingly clear that they support this Afghan peace process as well, and, as your setup showed, this release of these prisoners, pretty important.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, what’s the alternative? If the U.S. — talks founder, and the U.S. leaves, most of its troops, takes out most of its troops at the end of 2014, what’s the alternative? Are we looking at civil war?

MARC GROSSMAN: Oh, well, first, I think it’s really important for people to not set this up as the United States is leaving.

As you said, there will still be American troops in Afghanistan on Jan. 1, 2015. And the president will decide what number that is. But, if you would allow me, this isn’t only about the military force. This is about also a civilian presence, an economic presence.

And I know that it’s not sort of so interesting to everybody, but this regional structure that we have set up is also the commitment of the international community to be there after Jan. 1, 2015.

MARGARET WARNER: Amb. Marc Grossman, thank you so much.

MARC GROSSMAN: Well, thank you very much.

MARGARET WARNER: And enjoy your time off.