Trump's Musical Chairs in Afghanistan

Are Will Ruger’s connections with Koch, where he's advocated troop withdrawals, make him fit to be ambassador to Kabul? The president evidently thought so.

Despite its two decades-long war in Afghanistan, the United States has never had an ambassador last there for more than three years. And President Trump’s new nominee for the post, William Ruger, may never even get to turn down the official sheets in Kabul.

On September 10, Trump quietly announced his intention to nominate Ruger, who did a tour in Afghanistan as a Naval Reserve officer s decade ago. The move comes nine months after career diplomat John Bass resigned following a two-year stint in the stress-heavy post. He was replaced on a temporary basis by Ross Wilson, a retired career ambassador who had been working at the Atlantic Council think tank and a Minnesota-based international association to promote global understanding. 

The word in Kabul was that Bass had resigned for personal reasons. His parents were ill and the long family separation had taken a heavy toll on him. But he had also criticized the regime’s special intelligence agency “for using ‘Soviet-style tactics’ after a human-rights activist appeared to have been coerced into retracting accusations that Afghan educators had raped 165 boys,” the New YorkTimes reported.

Wilson, or another temp, may have to stay a while longer: It’s unlikely Ruger will get a Senate confirmation hearing given the election season and, quite possibly, Trump’s defeat at the polls in November. The Taliban peace negotiations further cloud the future.

Ruger, who holds a PhD in Politics from Brandeis, is not widely known for deep expertise on foreign policy or management, much less Afghanistan. His published academic writing on Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan or other countries in the region has focused on advocating for the withdrawal of American troops. He has also written over a dozen commentary and opinion pieces on the matter for publications ranging from the Washington Examiner to TheNational Interest to the New York Times.

But he has strong conservative credentials.At the Charles Koch Institute, a Virginia-based think tank whose namesake has been one of Trump’s most influential backers, Ruger is touted as “a foreign policy thought leader.” There, he’s also campaigned for troop withdrawals in such journals as International Studies Quarterly; Civil Wars; and Armed Forces and Society. He’s also written about foreign investment, veterans participating in community organizations and an assessment of NATO’s enlargement in regards to U.S. strategy with Russia and countries in Eastern Europe. 

Oddly, the Koch Institute doesn’t list those credits. Instead, it advertises his academic credentials in domestic politics and economics, as “the author of the biography Milton Friedman and co-author of two books on state politics, including Freedom in the 50 States.”  

And there’s another Koch-funded connection: Stand Together, where he is vice president of foreign affairs. There, he has advocated for reducing the U.S. defense budget and reserving war as a last resort, among other issues. As an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin, he teaches an Introductory Course on International Studies and International Conflict and Security. 

Outside of libertarian circles, however, he remains an unknown.

“I don't even know who this guy is,” Douglas London, a former senior CIA operations officer with decades of experience in the region, told SpyTalk. London, who has served as a CIA chief of station in U.S. embassies, also bemoans the fact that Ruger “has no experience managing such a huge and complex official U.S. mission. There are multiple agencies, troops , equities with the Afghans…” 

Ruger did not respond to emailed questions requesting comment and no one was answering the phones at Koch on Wednesday. 

Some foreign policy experts, meanwhile, rose to Ruger’s defense following the first publication of this story on Thursday. Max Abrahms, a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University, who has written extensively on security issues, was one of them. 

“Ruger knows Afghanistan, IR theory & the US foreign policy-making process,” he argued in a tweet. “He also has the benefit of holding sensible views in line with the American public’s. We gave nation-building a really good try. Time to return Afghanistan to its people.”

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee did not immediately respond to questions regarding when a hearing and vote on Ruger’s nomination might take place.

He’s not likely to get one, given the calendar. But Ruger will almost certainly remain a vocal enthusiast for the president’s withdrawal strategy for Afghanistan.

“We commend the Trump administration for its continued work in the best interests of our nation,” he said in a statement last year after Trump announced he intended to withdraw 5,000 troops from the embattled country. 

“There is no longer a sound reason for the United States to continue sacrificing precious lives and treasure in a conflict not directly connected to our safety or other vital national interests,” he maintained in a statement in February following an agreement to bring peace to Afghanistan. 

Other longtime U.S.-Afghan hands argue that the U.S. needs to keep at least a residual paramilitary force there to guard against Al-Qaeda or Islamic State threats to the American homeland. On September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda operatives hijacked airplanes and flew them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. A third airliner was headed to Washington, D.C. when passengers overcame the hijackers.

Ruger’s nomination comes as negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government resurfaced in Qatar after a six month hiatus that stopped the negotiations in March over disagreements about the release of 400 Taliban prisoners. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo welcomed the resumption of talks, saying they “must not be squandered” and offering U.S. support.

Switching U.S. envoys to the terrorism-ridden capital every two or three years seems standard practice, as nobody has remained there longer since Theodore Eliot from 1973 to 1978, official embassy records show. The stress, terror attacks and family separations have resulted in an informal policy limiting tours.

Bass advocated for direct peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, and he paved the way for a three-day countrywide ceasefire to mark the end of Ramadan in June 2018 — the first period of peace in almost two decades. 

“We long ago accomplished what we originally set out to do in the country,” Ruger maintained in a statement the institute issued last year, “and after almost two decades, it is time to bring our brave troops home and for Afghans to take ownership of their country’s future.”

The first version of this story gave insufficient credit to Ruger’s writing on foreign policy. We regret the oversight.