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The Future of Afghanistan after U.S. Withdrawal: A Conversation with Ambassador Douglas E. Lute

May 14, 2021

Douglas E. Lute
, CEO of Cambridge Global Advisors, LLC and former United States Ambassador to NATO
Eliot A. Cohen, Dean, Johns Hopkins SAIS

On the 14th of May 2021, SAIS hosted Douglas E. Lute, former United States Ambassador to NATO, for a discussion on the future of Afghanistan following the Biden Administration’s withdrawal of U.S. forces. Ambassador Lute began by recalling his background which included being in the armored cavalry of the U.S. Armed Forces. He then noted how while taking classes at Harvard under Samuel Huntington, “he met Eliot Cohen.” He then spent some time at the Joints Chiefs of Staff before being brought onboard by the Bush administration to coordinate information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Ambassador noted that “he told President Bush that he was against the Iraqi surge, and that Bush appreciated his honesty and brought him to work for him.” 

As for Afghanistan in specific, the Ambassador noted that “by 08-09 it was obvious that the resilience of the Taliban as well as the inherent corruption of the Afghan government meant that the U.S. could no longer achieve a military victory.” The “CIA in particular” he noted, “had an especially grim view of America’s chances.” He then followed up about how the Obama administration asked him to stay on in his role “which was unique as he may well be the first individual to span responsibilities regarding war across two administrations.” He added there how, “he felt Bush was more of an instinctual President, while Obama was more of an analytical one.” In the Ambassador’s assessment, “America lost sight of what it wanted to do in a country that is ‘too rural, too illiterate, too ingrained in a history of war’ to be able to dictate grand schemes.” 

As for the future of the region, the Ambassador supported Biden’s decision to completely withdraw from the country and believed that “over-the-horizon and precision strike capabilities had developed to such an extent as to give the U.S. increased leverage.” He then called for continued financial support for the Kabul government’s military, expedited visas for Afghans who supported the U.S., as well as a sustained diplomatic effort “even if unlikely,” to try and solve the intra-Afghan conflict peacefully.