The Trump administration has tapped a Minnesota native to lead the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan at a critical time as the U.S. negotiates a peace agreement.
Ross Wilson, who spent nearly four decades in the U.S. Foreign Service before retiring near the Twin Cities, accepted U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s request this month to lead the U.S. Embassy in Kabul until the Senate confirms a permanent ambassador.
“Afghanistan is an extraordinarily challenging, but also very consequential, assignment and I am honored by the trust and confidence that Secretary of State Pompeo and the Department of State have placed in me,” Wilson said in a statement he issued from Washington, D.C., before heading overseas.
It’s the third time the veteran diplomat has been called out of retirement to help lead U.S. embassies — most recently, in 2018, when the Trump administration asked Wilson to fill in as the chargé d’affaires in the Asian nation of Georgia. Now, Wilson, who was sworn back into the U.S. Foreign Service last week, replaces John Bass, who spent two years as ambassador in the Afghan capital until Jan. 6.
A State Department spokesperson said in a statement that Wilson will arrive in Kabul soon, taking over “one of the world’s most challenging diplomatic postings.”
“Ambassador Wilson’s policy and leadership expertise will ensure we continue to advance U.S. interests in Afghanistan, including moving forward with the Afghan peace process and supporting women, civil society, democratic governance, and rule of law as Afghans define how they will govern themselves,” the statement said.
A State Department official told the New York Times that Bass wasn’t being removed from the role because of any disagreement with the administration and that it’s typical for ambassadors to serve only two years because of the high-stress nature of the job.
“This is not just any post; it’s Afghanistan — our longest war,” added Tom Hanson, chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations Minnesota and a diplomat-in-residence at the Alworth Institute for International Studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth.
“This is a very important position that he’s going into … [a] sensitive and high-level position. … I think if anybody’s up to it, it’s Ross.”
The turnover comes at a critical time. Just this week, two U.S. service members in Afghanistan were killed when their vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb, an attack the Taliban took responsibility for.
In November, Trump announced the U.S. had reopened peace talks with the Taliban, which could lead to withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from the nation. During the 18-year war, more than 2,400 U.S. service members have been killed.
The U.S. has about 13,000 troops in Afghanistan now.
There are also escalating tensions with the U.S. and Iran after the U.S. killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani.
While a special envoy leads peace negotiations with the Taliban, Wilson still will oversee the large embassy and manage the United States’ direct relationship with the Afghan government, such as the terms of assistance programs. Mary Curtin, who spent 25 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and is diplomat-in-residence at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, said there are often gaps in ambassador roles that the No. 2 leader takes on. But the fact the U.S. tapped Wilson as the chargé d’affaires demonstrates how important Afghanistan is to the United States.
“It sends a message to the host government that this is really important and we’re sending in somebody of senior stature,” Curtin said. “And it sends a message to the team there that Washington is paying attention and it provides leadership at a high level.”
Wilson, 64, graduated from the University of Minnesota and lives near the Twin Cities with his wife, Margo Squire, also a retired diplomat. Wilson has had assignments at U.S. embassies in Moscow and Prague and at the consulate general in Melbourne. He served as ambassador to Azerbaijan from 2000 to 2003 and as ambassador to Turkey from 2005 to 2008 under President George W. Bush. In 2014, he served as the chargé d’affaires in Turkey before the temporary role in Georgia in 2018.
Wilson was most recently a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C., and volunteered on the board of Minneapolis nonprofit Global Minnesota.
Mark Ritchie, a former Minnesota secretary of state who heads the nonprofit, said Wilson “is exactly who you want in a senior diplomatic post,” and his assignment should draw Minnesotans’ attention to a region that doesn’t always get local notice.
“We have a very long history of Minnesotans being distinguished in foreign careers,” Ritchie said, “and in all matters related to international affairs.”