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    Ambassador Ross Wilson on his time as chargé d’affaires to Afghanistan

    On Tuesday, April 18th, Ambassador Ross Wilson gave a talk on his time serving as chargé d’affaires to Afghanistan. Every year, the Carleton political science department organizes a series of discussions about a theme pertinent to current affairs; this year, it was democracy and authoritarianism.


    Ambassador Wilson is a long-time foreign policy official who has served worldwide. Wilson was first made ambassador in 2000 and served in Azerbaijan before moving within the South Caucuses to Turkey in 2005. While he worked as ambassador, he also was the chief negotiator of the Free Trade of the Americas and continued his economic work.


    At Carleton, he now teaches the course “Statecraft and the Tools of National Power” alongside Bigelow Teachers-in-Residence of political science Jon Olson and Tom Hanson and Hanson’s wife, Margo Squire.


    Wilson’s talk was centered on his most recent position in Afghanistan during the US withdrawal. His talk began by explaining his arrival in Afghanistan. He was appointed after the sudden departure of his predecessor, John R. Bass, in 2019. He was asked to leave his retirement to resume the post in 2019. Instead of promoting someone already working in the embassy, those within the State Department specially selected Wilson due to his extensive diplomatic résumé. Although he was hesitant to accept the position, he ultimately decided it was his “duty” as a statesman.


    During Wilson’s tenure as chargé d’affaires in Afghanistan, he managed several crises, including the pandemic and the U.S.’s full withdrawal.


    During his talk, Ambassador Wilson reflected on the atmosphere in Afghanistan while he was there. He mentioned that the security challenges were immense, which resulted in a sense of isolation.  Wilson described that the embassy was surrounded by blast walls — barriers designed to protect those inside from outside threats like bombings — and those working at the embassy rarely left. He remembered when he was leaving the embassy to meet with an Afghan representative, and his security detail expressed incredible excitement because he had not left the compound since arriving. The pandemic only heightened isolation, as negotiations, meetings or personal interactions, as in the rest of the world, were moved over Zoom.


    The Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan, also known as the US-Taliban or the Doha Agreement, stipulated the removal of NATO troops from Afghanistan. While Ambassador Wilson did not play a role in negotiations, his job involved enacting and implementing the outlined plans. When Ambassador Wilson arrived, decreases in troops were already underway. Under the instructions of President Trump and, subsequently, Biden, the embassy began coordinating the removal of troops — ultimately by September 11th, 2021 — after several proposed and moved dates.


    The execution of such removal was an emotional subject for Ambassador Wilson as he spoke. He believes “everyone — including myself — is responsible” for the events in late 2021. The collapse of the Afghan government, evacuation, and challenges that came with both had immense political consequences.


    Ambassador Wilson recounted the process of calling every American citizen who registered with the embassy to learn if they were still in the country. He highlighted that locating U.S. citizens was a difficult task, as embassy registrations were not a reliable way of tracking citizens — he himself joked that he had only registered with the local embassy once on a personal trip. He remembered the hundreds of phone calls made a day when his staff desperately tried to contact those registered, only for them to say, “I’m not in Afghanistan, I live in Boston!” when they were reached.


    Wilson described the airport scene, which dominated American headlines, as much more horrifying in person. To get into the airport, he explained, there were several processing gates — each wider at the entrance than the gated-off exit — which resulted in trapped passengers and outbursts of violence. The team was bombarded with an endless stream of appeals from NGOs, American politicians and former military personnel regarding who should be the primary focus of evacuation. He stressed that although all were worthy, the tumult of requests only contributed to the logistical difficulties on the ground.


    Going forward, he expressed his concerns about the future of Afghanistan under Taliban leadership. The former Taliban soldiers who once worked only in combat were now tasked with government desk jobs — something, Wilson thinks, they were ill-equipped to do. Often, when he met with Taliban officers — for example, at traffic stops — they were often illiterate or only educated in Quranic Arabic, a worrying trait for those who have taken over all government duties, including those which include negotiations with other countries, important paperwork or pressing economic matters.


    During the Q and A section of his talk, Ambassador Wilson expanded on the role COVID-19 played during the end of the US’s time in Afghanistan. He expressed his belief that diplomacy is ultimately interpersonal — the relationships, interactions, and experiences diplomats have with each other are instrumental in coordinating desired outcomes. He argued that the pandemic and the security issues put even more stress on an already strained relationship.


    In response to another question, Wilson also commented that he doesn’t see Afghanistan having large-scale rippling geopolitical effects. China, Russia, Iran or other challengers to the American Liberal International Order are unlikely to be able to utilize the events for any alternate agenda effectively. Rather, he explained that the implications would be primarily internal or regional as the Taliban struggles to establish a new government.


    Although he is cautious about the future of the region, he hopes the evacuation process will be a tool for other similar events when they occur. Although reflecting on the situation may be difficult, he is proud of the millions of Afghans who had access to healthcare, education and other essential services with American help.

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    About the Contributor
    Bea Culligan
    Bea Culligan, Social Media Manager and News Editor
    Bea (she/her) is a sophomore intended political science major from Los Angeles, California. She is interested in all things news, but most of all, what is happening at Carleton! Bea was previously a Staff Writer.

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