Growing up, Ronald Neumann went to a school with a gang problem. At least, that’s what many people thought. But by the time Neumann got to high school, most of the gangs had been cleaned up. The perception remained however, that his high school was plagued with unsavory characters. This served as an important lesson for the man who would later become the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan: reputation follows fact.
But Afghanistan is no high school. As the U.S. Ambassador from 2005-2007, Neumann was tasked with changing the narrative and reputation of the war. Before the reputation of Afghanistan could be fixed, however, he needed to find out what was happening on the ground. But finding the truth, in a country like Afghanistan, with competing and contradictory narratives, was a skill beyond even his skills and experience, which left the reputation building a task still undone.
Even now, the recent release of five Al Qaeda prisoners in exchange for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl shows how fungible facts can feel. As New America Fellow Anand Gopal recently wrote, “The categories we take as rigid and unchanging, such as ‘terrorist’, are in fact remarkably fluid in the context of Afghan politics.”