NATO diplomat Jack Segal offers a view from the graveyard of empires
By Anne Stanton
Last week Jack Segal was trying to figure out how to pump a shallow
pool of gray water out of the basement of the Traverse City house he
and his family had recently moved into.
It was a reality check for the NATO diplomat, who recently returned
from his 40th and last trip to Afghanistan.
During the course of the last decade, Segal has visited 50 NATO
installations and tiny, temporary military bases in this troubled
country. A top NATO diplomat, he has been the target of gunfire,
rocket fire and mortars, yet he is quick to add that 60% of the
country, surprisingly, is not at war. People are simply going about
their daily lives.
In the beginning, Segal didnt wear
body armor as he visited the markets of Mazar-e-Sharif, Kunduz, and
Kandahar. But not so on recent trips. He now wears a bullet-proof vest
Segals official title was principal foreign policy and political
advisor to General Egon Ramms, a German four-star general and the
Joint Force Commander for NATO.
His job involved helping sort out policy and political crises, often
getting worked out in what seemed like endless meetings. Some were
held in the presidential palace, others in a Mercedes Jeep, where the
air conditioning miserably failed to compete with the multitude of
laptop computers and cell phones. It was not uncommon, he said, for at
least one person to faint from the blistering heat.
Conference calls often included General Stan McChrystal who reports to
General David Patraeus, and Ramms. Occasionally President Obama was on
the phone, he said.
Segal moved a year ago to Traverse City, although its more accurate
to say that Segal is just now re-joining his wife, Karen Puschel,
herself a former U.S. diplomat and their 13-year-old daughter. Segal
was mostly living in Holland and Afghanistan, with short trips home.
The multi-lingual couple previously worked together for the State
Department in exciting careers that took them to remote corners of the
world. Segal recalled a dinner party in Tel Aviv in 1991, when Saddam
Hussein was bombing the city. They set gas masks by their place
settings. A year later, they were assigned to Moscow to implement the
new terms of the START agreement, which included the destruction of
chemical weapons (necessitating the pay-off of organized criminals).
Their favorite assignment?
Opening a new American consulate in the Ural mountains, making them
the first diplomats to an area long closed to the West. He remembers
stepping off trains in minus 40-degree weather in Siberia.
It was an adventure, and we were into adventure, he said.
Segals retirement comes at a time when the military brass of
Afghanistan is backpedaling on promises made at the start of the troop
build-up in February of 2009. Two weeks ago, General Stan McChrystal
said that achieving success in Afghanistan would take a lot longer
than he hoped. And Secretary of Defense Robert Gates last week said
not to expect significant progress by the end of the year.
This comes after pouring billions into military bases far out in the
deserts of the south and near the border of Pakistan. McChrystal, at
the time, called for a new soft power approach. He wanted troops to
get out of the bases, take off their body armor and sunglasses, and
build relationships with villagerseasier said than done in villages
dominated by the Taliban.
McChrystals most prominent demonstration case was the village of
Marjah, a Taliban stronghold and the center of the thriving opium
trade. NATO forces intended to oust the Taliban and install a
government in a boxtrained civilian administrators and policemen
from other villages. Yet the military effort hasnt delivered yetthe
Taliban are as strong as they ever wereand the government also isnt
working, largely because there werent enough Afghans either
courageous or trained enough to take the job.
Yet despite the seeming hopelessness, Segal does not favor immediate withdrawal.
We are too far down the road. What if Osama bin Laden comes out of
his cave and announces, We defeated the Soviet Union and now weve
stopped the worlds largest superpower? Wed have suicide bombers
attacking every institution they hate. But neither should we sink into
an endless pursuit of distant dreams.
Segal said he agrees with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, when he
praised Americas commitment to begin withdrawal by the summer of
2011. I am happy. American troops also have families like our troops.
They need to go home as well, Karzai said.
Segal speaks like a diplomat, eager to hear what you have to say, and
calmly explaining his point of view. And he has many views. Northern
Express asked him to talk about his life and what we should do next in
Afghanistan. Heres the interview, which was edited for brevity:
NE: You were drafted to fight in Vietnam, back in 1968 at a time of a
massive troop build-up. How does that influence your thoughts on
Segal: I was there for a year, and there came a time during my
Vietnam experience that I could not explain why we were there or what
we were trying to do. My dad wrote to me, and asked, Do you think you
are making headway? I couldnt answer that question. Making headway
toward what? So it is with Afghanistan; I constantly remind myself,
how do we answer that question.
NE: Is this a second Vietnam?
Segal: It could be. Each morning when men go out of the gate (at
their base camp), and expose themselves, not knowing if theyll come
back, I want to know, are they adding value? Are their trips making a
The lesson for me from Vietnam comes from a series of interviews with
Robert McNamara (Secretary of Defense for presidents Kennedy and
Johnson). He was asked, When did you know we were going to lose the
war? He said, After the Tet offensive in January of 1968, I went to
the president and told him, We cannot win the war. I threw a book
at the TV, I was so angry! I was there during Tet in the Third Brigade
of the Fourth Infantry. It was a huge battle and a lot of guys got
killed, and heres this guy, saying he already knew it was over. At
that point, 20,000 Americans were dead. After that battle, 37,000 more
died, boys mostly, some girls. We cant let that happen to us in the
War on Terror.
NE: How should we understand the Taliban? Is our fight with them?
Segal: There is a lot of confusion with the Taliban. We were attacked
on 9/11 by al Qaeda. After 9/11, we sent a message to the government
of Afghanistan, which was run by the Taliban, and told it to turn over
Osama bin Laden and his key men. They refused, and we invaded. The
issue morphed from getting Al Qaeda into something about the Taliban.
But if you talk to an Afghani, if you go to the villages in the south
of Afghanistan where the Pashtuns have lived for centuries, and you
say, Are you a Taliban? most men would say, Of course! Im a
student of Islam. Thats what Talib means: a student. It concerns me
that people havent realized we are not competing against the Taliban,
but insurgents. We will never defeat the Taliban because they are the
fabric of the country. There is no stigma attached to being a Taliban.
Thats what you are supposed to be. Yet as recently as last week,
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said on TV, we must
defeat the Taliban. I threw another book at the TV. No, no, no. We are
going against their core beliefs.
NE: The Taliban actually brought stability to the country after it had
been taken over by warlords.
Segal: Yes, people were fed up with the disorder of all these power
brokers. They didnt want them. So the Taliban did what they are doing
today. They came in and set up a parallel government.
The big problem then, and it still is: there is no system of justice,
except for the Taliban. If there are disputes over land or animals or
water, and I want someone to judge that, there is no one in government
to do that. What the Taliban did was to hire circuit ridersjust like
circuit judges in Michigan in the 1860s. They ride in on a motorcycle
and base their decisions on the Koranthe only law a Muslim respects.
The Koran is not subject to interpretation. Every word is unambiguous.
Any law passed in the Parliament is superfluous; anything you need to
know about human rights is in the Koran. Afghans are not the only ones
who believe this. We need to understand that one very important fact.
NE: People say peace is impossible in Afghanistan because its a loose
collection of tribes as opposed to being an organized central
government. How do we achieve peace among all these different
Segal: In any Muslim society, there are four stages of peace, and it
begins with forgiveness. Under Islam, the only person who can give
amnesty is the person whos been violated. So if a neighbor has killed
your son, you must forgive him. And if its entire communities that
have been killed, there must be gigantic support for everyone to agree
The first stage begins with simply agreeing to appear in the same
place, not even talking to each other. By the fourth stage, the
senior leaders meet publicly and come to an agreement thats already
been pounded out secretly by their underlings. Its all about saving
face for males in Islam. Loss of face is the worst thing that can
Therein lies one of the solutions. We need strategic patience and
allow the Afghans to negotiate with each other; we cant do the
negotiating for them. NATO officials should not be saying what the
red lines are, the non-negotiable terms of agreement. Recently, a
senior U.S. official (Hillary Clinton) said, we will not permit any
taking back of the rights of women. I wish we could say that, but the
problem is, thats not our call. What if Afghans say thats not
NE: But what about the brutal treatment of women? How can we do nothing?
Segal: You know, theyre still being treated that way. Did you read
about the 14-year-old girl who was publicly flogged for running away
from an arranged marriage with a much older man? Thats not specific
to Afghanistan and the Taliban. We flogged people in the 17th century.
We burned them at the stake in Salem, Im sorry. In Gohr, where this
girl was from, there wasnt one thing I saw that was different from
the 17th century. In Saudi Arabia, women cant drive. In Amish
country in Pennsylvania, girls wear buns and long dresses. Do we tell
them to wear short shorts and bikinis? Of course not. Its their
culture. I presume they vote. Do they drive? I doubt it. You see where
Im going. When one culture imposes values on another, there are
In Afghanistan, a solution would require us to be flexible. The hard
part is that the highly educated, Westernized Afghanis wrote out the
rights of women in the new Afghan Constitution in 2002 at the
conference in Bonn, Germany. To replace what? I guess, the Koran. It
was very unacceptable to the Taliban. The Constitution dictates that
women would hold 25% of the seats. If you tried to get that bill
through our own Congress, good luck!
NE: Is it working? Do they have 25%?
Segal: Almost, but its hard. Some are afraid to run for office. Some
dropped outa lot were under death threats. Some cant go home to
their districts. Too dangerous. And some are making too much money in
Kabul and dont want to go back home.
NE: What can we do about the constitution now?
Segal: Fair play is never made from a clean slate of paper, ever. Is
there a deal that we can swallow hard and accept? That we can urge the
government of Afghanistan, as the negotiators, to support? There is
so much resistance in the (Taliban-controlled) south and parts of the
east. The government should insist on schooling for boys and girls as
a right. We can say, we would really like that to be codified and
accepted by the insurgents.
NE: Does it say anything in the Koran about girls not going to school?
Segal: Its kind of negative on schooling. Its pretty certain
Mohammed could not read or write, but his wife, who was 14 years older
than him, could. Mohammeds words in the Koran cannot be changed or
interpreted. This is the word of God, and its all you really need.
Im his messenger. They need to understand the Koran and thats why
they need to go to the mosque five times a day. I know its hard for
people to understand this, but not so long ago, women were still not
allowed to be pastors in some Christian faiths, and one religion still
doesnt allow them to be priests.
NE: So where are we now in terms of casualties?
Segal: Weve now had eight years of fighting: 1,750 NATO soldiers have
been killed, 1,100 of them Americans; an estimated 20,000 Afghan
soldiers have been killed, and 200,000 Afghan civilians have died.
NE: Not to mention that weve disillusioned the civilians with the
corruption. A high school exchange student from Afghanistan told me
they see crooks build these grand homes with money meant for the
common people. He said it has caused the Afghans to lose all respect
Segal: When Karzai says that most of the corruption is the fault of
the Americans, I agree. Where did all the money come from? It came
from us. We handed all the money to crooks, and weve been handing it
out as fast as we can no bidding because were in a hurry.
Six months ago we were spending a $1 billion a day, 60/40 Afghanistan
and Iraq. We need to get control.
NE: In the bigger picture, what should our goal be?
Segal: We are there to contain al Qaeda. We are not there to turn a
17th century country into a modem democracy. Our president has said
very little about the Taliban. His words are to disrupt, dismantle and
destroy al Qaeda.
Karazai is convinced we are going to leave and is trying to create an
environment to make a deal with everybody. The Afghans like him, but
not his government. Hes part of the royal family. They dont blame
him; they just want him to get rid of the corrupt politicians. And
thats a good thing.
Im going to go back to the subject of Vietnam. The little town of
Marja didnt work. Kandahar is under the control of the Taliban. The
only trajectory we have left is we all sit down with real Afghans at
the table, listen to them, and ask them, What do you think will work
and what can we afford to do? If they say, build all the roads and
fix everything, we might say, We cant afford to do that.
When I came back here to Michigan, I couldnt believe our roads. The
road from the airport in Kabul is in better shape than anything in
Traverse City. As a U.S. taxpayer, we do not have unlimited funds, and
the unemployed people in this town need a job too.
NE: And what about the troops going out of the gate?
Segal: We need to get them out of the front lines now. The IEDs and
ambushes---and there are casualties on all sides, civilians tooadd no
value. Send them by helicopter to train the Afghans to patrol their
NE: What do you think of Greg Mortensens work, building schools in Afghanistan?
Segal: His idea is you cant build a school until you build a
relationship, and this works. If you can just get literacy here, they
could run the government, but that would take 30 years. The feeling
has been, we dont have time. But why are we in such a hurry?
NE: Last question. Why did your family move to Traverse City?
Segal: For one, Karens mother lives here. Also for the beauty, the
culture, the recreation. There are flights to two major cities. The
Traverse City downtown looks like Europe. People ride bikes here, and
they dont get killed doing it.
Jack Segal will offer an extended education class at Northwestern
Michigan College this fall. Hell also speak at the International
Affairs Forum in November.
Segals peace STRATegy
As presented in a speech at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Riga, Latvia .
Help the Afghans build their own system of security, with an
emphasis on police training.
The U.S. must gain control over its billions of spending in
Afghanistan, such as setting up a bidding system and adding strict
oversight, to stave off corruption.
Let the Afghans sort out the political arrangements with their
opponents. It may result in a tricky coalition of Islamists,
progressive civil society advocates, terrorists, warlords,
technocrats, and tribal elders. We need to accept that civil war might
be a possibilityagain.
Take Obama at his word: It must be clear that Afghans will have to
take responsibility for their security and that America has no
interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.