An Interview with Ambassador Marc Grossman

by Forum Staff

Ambassador Marc Grossman served as the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, the State Department’s third ranking official, until his retirement in 2005 after twenty-nine years in the U.S. Foreign Service. As Under Secretary, he helped marshal diplomatic support for the international response to the attacks of September 11, 2001. He also managed U.S. policies in the Balkans and Colombia and promoted a key expansion of the NATO alliance. As Assistant Secretary for European Affairs, he helped direct NATO’s military campaign in Kosovo. In Turkey, Ambassador Grossman encouraged vibrant U.S.-Turkish economic relations. Ambassador Grossman was a Vice Chairman of The Cohen Group from July 2005 to February 2011, when President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton called him back to service as the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In a conversation with The Fletcher Forum, Ambassador Grossman, discusses the first round of the Afghan presidential election and shares his assessment of Afghanistan’s future, regional stability in South Asia, and the role diplomacy can play in addressing critical, global issues. 


FLETCHER FORUM: Given your experience in Turkey, the Balkans, and particularly as the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, what is the role that you think diplomacy can play in today’s world? How has this role changed and where do you think it is headed?

GROSSMAN: The role of diplomacy is changing in front of our very eyes. When I first joined the Foreign Service in 1976, diplomacy was about being sent abroad to observe and report back to Washington, D.C. so that other people could decide what it was you were supposed to do next. When you look at the jobs that we ask our diplomats to do around the world today, these are all jobs about activity and programs. I’m not say that reporting is not important, it is, but when you think about trying to stop the trafficking of women and children, promote sustainable development, pursue pluralism and tolerance around the world, or promote economic growth, these are things that are front-end jobs that people are doing around the world. I certainly admire that. That was true of my time in Turkey when these sorts of objectives were just beginning to be systematically acted upon.  You saw it in the Balkans, and absolutely it’s true of the very large and courageous number of people that we have in Afghanistan. When I speak to people who are considering diplomacy or people who have just joined the diplomatic profession or service, I tell them I envy them, because whichever of them is speaking to Fletcher students thirty years from now, I think will have had a very new and interesting kind of career, and I envy the excitement of it all.

FLETCHER FORUM: Speaking of Afghanistan, what do you see as the biggest challenges moving forward? To what extent do you think the international commitment to Afghanistan will be followed through in a sustainable way?

GROSSMAN: First, it’s important to give Afghans credit. What happened on April 5 was a remarkable achievement. Seven and a half million people voted—40% of those people were women, and the Taliban could not stop this election. People came out and said “we’d like to decide our future; we’d like to decide at the ballot box, by participating.” The next thing, of course, is to have the runoff. It appears that there will be two candidates in the runoff, and I hope that, and I believe that, that election can go as smoothly and successfully as April 5 did. Once a new president is installed —both of the candidates have said they would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA)—and once President Obama decides what the level of U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan on January 1, 2015, I think that the rest of the international community will be able to make its decisions on the future. I believe that people will meet their commitments to support the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and they’ll meet their commitments to development.

FLETCHER FORUM: What do you suspect are the most necessary components of the BSA in terms of troop levels and are you confident that whatever remaining force in Afghanistan can effectively secure the country and continue to train our partners there?

GROSSMAN: I see three things. First, the crucial component of the BSA is that it meets the standards of a status of forces agreement; in other words, so both Afghans and Americans need to know what their rights and responsibilities are and that very much focuses on questions like sovereignty and immunities, and who does what.  Second, I think that when you ask if the remaining force can effectively secure Afghanistan, the forces that will effectively secure Afghanistan are the Afghan forces, the ANSF. Once the combat mission of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) ends in December, things will not be the same in Afghanistan.  It’s the ANSF that’s in the lead. It’s the ANSF that’s now heading the combat missions. It’s the ANSF that’s taking casualties and I think they’ve done remarkably well. The purpose of any foreign troops that are left in Afghanistan after January 1, 2015—whether American, our friends, or allies—is to continue to train the ANSF so that the ANSF can effectively secure Afghanistan.

FLETCHER FORUM: In talking about political challenges, how do you see the reconciliation process taking shape with the new government? Obviously that depends a lot on elections, but do you think the intransigence of the parties might have been based on opposition to the Karzai government specifically, and not necessarily an aversion to peace talks in general? Do you see a new government as a new window of opportunity or do you think the Taliban will bide their time and reconstitute further?

GROSSMAN: I hope by January 1, 2015, that the Taliban sees a successful Afghan election, a new president who is legitimate, a BSA signed, a reasonable number of U.S. and other forces in Afghanistan to continue supporting the ANSF, and an international community meeting its pledges to the ANSF and to economic development. I think that if the Taliban sees all of those things, they will conclude that they cannot win militarily, and will then make a decision that they have to try to deal with the politics of this with a new government. This is a decision for the Taliban. The new president of Afghanistan will look out and make his assessment, but it’s the Taliban that has so far refused to talk to the government in Afghanistan. It’s the Taliban who continues their attacks, and so it is up to them to come to some different conclusion if they see all of those pieces in place.

FLETCHER FORUM: Speaking of new governments, how do you think Pakistan might position itself in Afghanistan? Do you see more or less of an appetite to address the insurgency within Pakistan? There are certainly some domestic constraints that might force the Sharif government’s hand, but how do you think Pakistan can confront this problem moving forward

GROSSMAN: Increasingly, Pakistanis recognize that the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is a real threat to Pakistan, and that they do, as you say, need to address the TTP because they’re killing large numbers of Pakistanis. I hope that they will come, as part of that conclusion, to the recognition that a secure, stable, prosperous Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s interest. This is because an Afghanistan that is chaotic and violent is in the TTP’s interest. I hope those two things get connected and, that as the Pakistanis continue to fight the TTP, they support an Afghan peace process, one that’s Afghan-owned and Afghan-led, and that both countries—Pakistan and Afghanistan—do all they can to increase economic opportunities for their citizens through trade and investment. All three things would go a long way towards creating a secure, stable, and prosperous Afghanistan inside of a secure, stable and prosperous region, of which Pakistan is obviously a very important part.

FLETCHER FORUM: What advice can you offer to future diplomats, or young professionals pursuing a career in international affairs?

GROSSMAN: My best advice is to pursue it. Diplomacy is going to be one of the most important and interesting professions of the next twenty years.  Here is a great opportunity to represent your country, to try to advance some important causes around the world, and to live what my friend, former Deputy Secretary of State Rich Armitage, used to call “a life of significance.”

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