Frank Ruggiero, the State Department’s senior deputy special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has been working with Kabul to finalize a document outlining its long-term bilateral relationship with the United States. Edited excerpts from his conversation with National Journal follow.
NJ How important is it to lock down a strategic-partnership agreement with Afghanistan?
RUGGIERO It shows the United States wants a long-term relationship with Afghanistan that will go through a period of transition, where the Afghans will come into the lead for security, and that after 2014, they will not be alone. Although a lot of our military forces will transition out, it means we’ll have a long-term presence that will continue to do training and equipping with the Afghan military. It’s larger than just the military relationship. We’ll continue to have a civilian relationship, an economic relationship. It’s a signal that, although the transition is coming to an end, America’s interests in Afghanistan will continue, that we’ll continue to be a partner with the government.
NJ Night raids by U.S. forces were a sticking point until a deal gave Afghans more control and judicial authority over special operations. What does that say about the negotiation process?
RUGGIERO That’s all in the context of President [Hamid] Karzai’s desire for Afghanistan to have complete sovereignty over its affairs. I think the desire of the government on night raids and detentions is pretty much in line with where the entire campaign is going, which is to transition to Afghan lead[ship].
NJ How did you arrive at the compromise?
RUGGIERO We’re partners with Afghanistan. We’re trying to come to positions that serve both of our interests. We had always envisioned the strategic partnership as defining the relationship beyond 2014. But President Karzai has used it as a mechanism to try to talk about the relationship now.
NJ Will the negotiations result in an agreement that satisfies both sides?
RUGGIERO Secretary of State Hillary [Rodham] Clinton met with Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul recently, and they had a very good conversation on just this topic. We’re pretty confident we’re going to be able to get a strategic-partnership agreement with Afghanistan. It’s in both our interests. From our perspective, we want to make sure that Afghanistan never becomes a safe haven for international terrorism again. Afghanistan has a history of 30 years of conflict; they live in a tough neighborhood. I think they want a partnership beyond 2014 with the United States. The assistance we can provide on the military side [and] economic assistance, I think, would be in their interest.
NJ Do you think we’ll have an agreement by the NATO summit in May?
RUGGIERO I’m cautiously optimistic.
NJ What is it like to be in the negotiations?
RUGGIERO You’re struck by questions like, Why are you in this room? Why are you doing these negotiations? It goes back to September 11, 2001. That’s the reason we’re in Afghanistan. That’s the reason we want a long-term partnership with Afghanistan: to protect the American homeland. Sometimes you’re sitting in the room, and it can be a grind—but you realize the historical context of why you’re there, and it’s pretty interesting. Negotiations are going over minutiae. It’s just a long process.
NJ The Taliban said it would suspend preliminary talks with the U.S. about reconciliation. What was your reaction?
RUGGIERO I was not surprised. I think this was expected. In the course of the negotiation to end a conflict, you’re going to have ups and downs. People pull out of talks as a negotiating tactic. So, we’ll have to see. We think this is not a permanent suspension of the talks. We’re willing to continue talking to the Taliban. We’ve made it clear what our red lines are for a final agreement, and we’ve made it clear what will be the next steps of the negotiations. We’re ready.
NJ What do you think is behind this? Is it a reflection of internal tensions? Or is it a calculated tactic?
RUGGIERO It’s probably both of those things. There’s probably an internal aspect to it, in terms of the Taliban and their negotiating strategy. In the end, what we’re trying to do with these negotiations is get Afghans talking to Afghans about the future of Afghanistan. The United States can’t negotiate that with the Taliban. We wouldn’t negotiate that. For the Taliban, that means there has to be some decision to have a conversation among Afghans. They have to consider that as part of their negotiating strategy.
NJ When you were growing up, did you ever think you would be doing this?
RUGGIERO No. I remember reading books about World War II when I was a kid. I had lots of uncles who fought in World War II. I remember thinking, “All I want to do when I grow up is be involved somehow in U.S. foreign policy.” So, going to Afghanistan, I thought, “Wow, here’s the opportunity to do something to serve.”
This article appears in the April 14, 2012, edition of National Journal Magazine.