John Bass, U.S. Envoy to Afghanistan, Steps Down on Cusp of New Peace Deal

By 

The New York Times

Jan. 6, 2020

The State Department said it was typical for ambassadors to serve only two years in Kabul, given the high-stress nature of the job.

Credit…Pool photo by Jacquelyn Martin

WASHINGTON — The American ambassador to Afghanistan is leaving his post after two years in Kabul, the State Department announced on Monday.

The departure of the ambassador, John R. Bass, comes as the United States is again trying to negotiate a tentative peace agreement with the Taliban that could withdraw American forces from Afghanistan in exchange for reduced violence.

It was not immediately clear where Mr. Bass would next be assigned, and a State Department official would not comment. A recent reshuffling of senior diplomats at the department’s headquarters in Washington has created openings in several high-level positions, although it was unknown if that was where Mr. Bass was headed.

The State Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said it was typical for ambassadors to serve only two years in Kabul, the Afghan capital, given the high-stress nature of the job. He said Mr. Bass was not being removed from his assignment because of any disagreement with the administration, and that his departure had in fact been long planned.

In the diplomatic circles in Kabul, the chatter was that Mr. Bass was leaving at the completion of his two years for personal reasons. His parents were ill, and repeated difficult postings abroad had kept him away from family for long stretches.

The Trump administration has been negotiating with the Taliban for most of the last year in hopes of winding down a war that began with an American invasion of Afghanistan in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

The two sides were close to striking a preliminary deal last September, but President Trump called off the talks after a suicide car bomb attack in Kabul killed an American soldier and 11 others. But in an unannounced visit to Afghanistan over Thanksgiving, the president said the diplomatic effort was back on track, and called for an ambitious cease-fire that has long been demanded by the government in Kabul, if spurned by the Taliban.

In recent weeks, Taliban officials and American diplomats had neared announcing some form of a cease-fire across Afghanistan, albeit a brief one. Details of the plan, however, were denied by Taliban officials, and it remains unclear what derailed the announcement.

In December, the diplomatic talks had again paused after the Taliban carried out a brazen attack on Bagram Air Field, the largest American base in Afghanistan. More recently, Taliban negotiators have temporarily suspended the talks to consult with their leaders, but they are expected to resume as soon as this week in Qatar.

The American negotiating team is led by Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador and special envoy, but Mr. Bass has been included in the talks.

Ross Wilson, a retired career ambassador, will replace Mr. Bass.

Credit…Associated Press

Mr. Bass recently criticized the Afghan 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.

He will be replaced by Ross Wilson, a retired career ambassador who was previously the top American diplomat in Turkey, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Mr. Wilson is taking a leave of absence from the Atlantic Council think tank and the nonprofit Global Minnesota networking organization to run the embassy in Kabul until a permanent ambassador is nominated, the State Department official said.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.

John Bass, U.S. Envoy to Afghanistan, Steps Down on Cusp of New Peace Deal