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New U.S. Ambassador To Afghanistan Faces Tough Job


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. James Cunningham has taken one of the most difficult diplomatic posts in the world. He is the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.



UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Do solemnly swear.

CUNNINGHAM: solemnly swear...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: That I will support and defend.

CUNNINGHAM: ...that I will support and defend...

SIMON: Ambassador Cunningham takes up his position in Kabul as there are a growing number of attacks on U.S. soldiers by members of the Afghan army - not just the Taliban. And corruption in the country runs high. President Obama's promise to withdraw most U.S. troops by the end of 2014, as Afghan forces take control of security. Earlier this week, insurgents fired rockets at a heavily fortified U.S. airbase, damaging the plane of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But General Martin Dempsey, the chairman, was uninjured. When we spoke with Ambassador Cunningham from the embassy in Kabul, we asked what the attacks said about security in Afghanistan.


CUNNINGHAM: What it says about security here is that it was purely by coincidence that the chairman's plane was there. The security here is going to be a difficult proposition for some time to come. We all know that. The Afghans are stepping up - they are moving into the lead and providing their own security. And the transition that we decided on some time ago is in fact taking place. And we will continue to move through that process in the coming months.

SIMON: One major concern, of course, has been that increasing number of what are called green-on-blue incidents - attacks committed by Afghan forces against coalition troops. So far this year, there have been more than 30. The Pentagon says only a small number are due to Taliban infiltration. Many seem to be the result of personal grudges.

CUNNINGHAM: I don't think it's a question of allies shooting at us. These are very unfortunate and sad events. And we and our Afghan partners are working hard to understand what's happening, why it's happening and how we can prevent it. While they're difficult for both of us - they affect the Afghans as well as the ISAF members - they are a minor part of many thousands of interactions that take place between our military forces every day, and we're determined to find a way to minimize and end them if we can.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, last year, Vice President Biden told Newsweek - and this is a quote, he said "the Taliban per se is not our enemy." And earlier this year, of course, we heard reports the U.S. and Taliban had been in political negotiations. The Taliban put women in burkas, they threw girls out of school, they imposed a reign of terror in Afghanistan. Are they no longer the enemy?

CUNNINGHAM: I'm not going to speak for the vice president, but the Taliban have a choice to make, which is becoming clearer and clearer and is part of the strategy that we have been developing and the reality that we have been creating. They can continue to use terror and violence to try to recover their situation in Afghanistan, in which case they will be met by continued opposition from Afghanistan and its partners. Or they can forego violence and begin a process of negotiation and reconciliation with the Afghan authorities. This is an Afghan process. It's something that we encourage and support. And we hope that individual Taliban or groups of Taliban will take advantage of the opportunity.

SIMON: Can you perceive putting the Taliban in the government?

CUNNINGHAM: That would be part of the Afghan process to decide that and how that might be.

SIMON: But, I mean, with the strategic partnership that you describe for the future between the United States and Afghanistan, surely the United States has a pretty big or in that question.

CUNNINGHAM: We do and so do all of our other partners. And we've made very clear several parameter points of the outcomes of any process. The Taliban need to forswear violence. They need to break ties with international terror, and they would need to respect the Afghan constitution, including the protections for minorities and women. Within that framework, the Afghans themselves will have to decide how to bring peace to their country.

SIMON: Mullah Omar, the main Taliban leader, has been calling on insurgents to infiltrate the ranks of the Afghan military and kill NATO forces and Afghan forces. You can negotiate with Mullah Omar or the Afghan government can negotiate with Mullah Omar?

CUNNINGHAM: To seek peace, you don't negotiate with your friends; you need to negotiate with the party with whom you have a conflict. Again, that's a decision for Afghans to make. But at the end of the day, as with any conflict like this, for genuine peace and stability to be created over the long term in Afghanistan, there will have to be a political resolution.

SIMON: Mr. Ambassador, is the United States poised to have another kind of surge if some kind of what amounts to civil war breaks out in Afghanistan after U.S. troops and international troops depart?

CUNNINGHAM: I don't think that civil war is a likely outcome at all. For all its difficulties, the Afghanistan of today has moved tremendously forward in what historically is a very short time, and all Afghans are aware of that. So, while there are many problems - regional, ethnic, political, religious - in this society, those differences have throughout Afghanistan's history. And I think that the vast majority of Afghans see that possibility, see that new better future for themselves and for their kids and would not be cast back into a situation of sectarian of civil violence.

SIMON: James Cunningham is the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, speaking with us from Kabul. Mr. Ambassador, thanks so much.

CUNNINGHAM: Well, thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.