When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the American strategy aimed to crush the Taliban and then stabilize the chaotic country with military might, while using diplomacy to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people.
No one in the U.S. government has been more integral to both lofty strategies than Karl Eikenberry.
Eikenberry, a 35-year career Army officer who is now a senior fellow in international security at Stanford University, first served as the top U.S. security commander in Afghanistan during the early years of the war, and later as head of the U.S.-led coalition forces there. In 2007, after Eikenberry’s second tour of duty in Afghanistan, the North Carolina native left the country to become the deputy chairman of the NATO Military Committee in Brussels.
Two years later, in 2009, the U.S. president once again called for Eikenberry’s service in Afghanistan. In an unusual move, President Obama appointed the retired lieutenant general as America’s ambassador to Afghanistan in an effort to help the war-weary and deeply fractured nation establish a functioning government. From May 2009 until July 2011, Eikenberry led a civilian surge that reversed insurgent momentum and set the conditions for transition to full Afghan sovereignty. Today, Afghanistan is operating under a historic Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) cemented in September, as well as a power-sharing arrangement between rival factions that many, including Eikenberry, hope will pave the way to a functioning state.
“I think we are on a path that gives Afghanistan a reasonable prospect for success,” Eikenberry said in a Diplomat interview. “It’s not at all guaranteed but … I believe Afghanistan will continue to remain a stable country and not return to a safe haven for al-Qaeda as it was prior to 9/11.”
Eikenberry said the BSA should allow the United States to reduce its military forces to about 10,000 troops by the end of 2014 or early 2015, with the Italians, Germans and other NATO countries contributing another 2,000 or so. (That number will be cut in half by 2016, and by 2017, most U.S. troops would be out of the country.)
“That should be enough to keep Afghanistan’s military and police holding their own against the Taliban while they continue to get better,” Eikenberry said. “The foreign development assistance should be enough to help the Afghan government meet payrolls and continue to provide a degree of services necessary to maintain government control of the country.”
Afghanistan’s mercurial, outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, had refused to sign the BSA, raising alarm among Western donors who keep the country’s economy afloat. Compounding the problem, a historic election earlier this year threatened to tear the country apart, as the two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, both declared victory after two hotly disputed rounds of presidential voting.
They only came to a power-sharing agreement after the U.S. intervened and brokered a compromise. Under the agreement, Ghani, a Western-educated, former World Bank economist widely considered one of the country’s top intellectuals, will serve as Afghanistan’s president, while Abdullah, a medical doctor turned politician with deep experience in post-Sept.11 Afghan government, will be the country’s chief executive officer, a role akin to a prime minister.
The two men will divide power to appoint their lieutenants to ministerial roles, and both have pledged to create a new plan to help inoculate Afghanistan’s fledgling election system from corruption.
Eikenberry, who holds master’s degrees from Harvard and Stanford, said the national unity government is an extremely important development for a bruised and tattered Afghanistan. But he also said it is far from infallible, primarily because the Ghani-Abdullah partnership is so fragile. Abdullah, who derives much of his support from the country’s Tajik community, accused Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, of industrial-scale electoral fraud. Abdullah’s warlord supporters also threatened to set up a parallel government. The two sides then bickered over every detail of an international audit of the votes. Even the swearing-in ceremony was nearly derailed by a dispute between the two sides over office space.
“They have very different political coalitions; they have very strong individuals within their coalitions but these coalitions are not tied together by institutionalized national political parties,” Eikenberry said. “There are some marriages of convenience.
“If there should be political stress in the center of the country, there is a possibility the two coalitions would split the country along ethnic lines,” Eikenberry added, noting that ethnically influenced voting was reportedly heavier in the second round of presidential balloting.
The results of that second round will remain secret under the power-sharing agreement at Abdullah’s request. While the move averted a political crisis, it also came as an insult to the 7 million Afghans who braved the Taliban’s threats to go to the polls. But Eikenberry says there was little choice but to cut a deal to salvage the first democratic transfer of power in Afghan history.
“The importance of this national unity government working for Afghanistan’s long-term stability is absolutely crucial,” he told us. “If the government starts to break apart, the potential for ethnic divisions starting to reappear in Afghanistan and dominate its politics, as they did during the civil war and Taliban years, becomes a great threat.”
But while the fledgling government faces serious potential perils, Eikenberry remains optimistic in large part because Afghanistan is more nationalistic than many people realize.
“If you look in this difficult neighborhood called Central and South Asia, there are no external powers acting as centrifugal forces to pull the country apart,” he explained. “The Afghan people are extraordinarily nationalistic people. Of course, they have their tribal and ethnic identities, but they have a very strong sense of Afghan nationhood. None of the actors within their coalitions is going to declare independence or break away from their central government.
“And there is no external power such as Iran that is pulling ethnic groups their way,” he added. “There are external powers that are meddling inside of Afghanistan but not one that desires to have part of the country break away. In fact, when confronted with external powers, that strong sense of nationalism has been evident throughout history among the Afghans.”
Eikenberry, who knows Abdullah and Ghani personally, said that over three long decades of strife, the veteran leaders’ appetite for battle has waned. That should compel them to grit their teeth and do their best to keep the country together.
“These are two leaders who have experienced the turmoil of warfare, a long civil war and a lot of fighting over the course of their entire adult lifetime,” he said. “The Afghans — since the early 1980s and the Soviet occupation — they’ve known warfare and a lot of brutal combat between each other. They are exhausted.”
Eikenberry said the Bilateral Security Agreement also gives the United States some assurances that its time and treasure expended in Afghanistan — which includes the deaths of more than 2,100 U.S. soldiers — won’t be for naught.
“It gives us the ability to continue to conduct counterterrorist operations in Afghanistan and the region,” he said. “Importantly, it also gives us the capability we need to continue to gather intelligence and conduct operations as needed.”
Eikenberry also noted that the agreement allows the United States to continue training the Afghan Army, which he said has made “enormous progress” since 2011.
“Since those years, their performance has been generally somewhere between satisfactory and impressive,” he said. “Compared to the Iraqi Army, they are holding. I don’t know if the Afghan National Army a couple of years from now will still be holding up well, but I think they do have much more of a national sense and ethos and a sense of Afghan pride.
“I was pretty impressed and actually quite proud of the time I spent with those guys,” he continued. “The Afghan Army, to be clear, is going to need continued close air support from the United States. It’s going to need perhaps some reinforcements in the form of Special Forces. I know the plan was to terminate our combat missions in Afghanistan but if that is too rigidly defined — no close air support, no help in extremis — I think Afghan [forces] would be very challenged under those circumstances.”
Eikenberry said he’s confident that the new Afghan government will give U.S. and Afghan troops more latitude to operate militarily. Karzai, enraged by civilian casualties, had effectively shuttered U.S. military operations in the country by prohibiting raids on Afghan homes and other restrictions.
“When the U.S. in the course of combat or confusion injures or kills Afghan civilians, it’s a great tragedy and from an Afghan perspective, it causes us a high degree of anger,” Eikenberry said. “It also brings home to those people that they don’t yet have control of their own sovereignty. There is a nationalist sentiment that is perfectly understandable.
“Hamid Karzai appealed to that sentiment but he did so in such a way and without discretion that it caused great diplomatic problems between our two countries,” he said. “The next president, Ghani, with the support of Abdullah perhaps … knows the ability of U.S. combat support against a tough, ruthless enemy, so they’ll have high standards in the application of that combat power. But I think the kind of restrictions that Hamid Karzai put on our forces — the U.S. and Afghanistan together — I think those will be modified so there is more flexibility offered to combat commanders, both Afghan and American.”
Eikenberry staunchly disagrees with any notion that the United States should pull all of its troops out of Afghanistan.
“If you’d had a full pullout — a suspension of military assistance advisory missions — that would lead to the collapse of the central government,” Eikenberry warned. “I believe the army and police, if nothing else, would have an inability to make payrolls.”
Furthermore, Eikenberry said the Afghan military would falter against insurgents without U.S. training and equipment.
“I don’t think their army and police would be able to hold their own in the field and my fear would be a return to civil war,” he said.
Eikenberry said the Obama administration will likely be able to reduce the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan below 10,000 by the end of this year, which he declared “a pretty impressive accomplishment.” (There are currently about 41,000 coalition forces in Afghanistan, including 29,000 Americans.)
“If we fall below that level, I think it becomes much more problematic,” he said. “We would have a huge new area for sanctuaries to develop. It would also give momentum, or a boost, to this global militant Islamic movement. Their propaganda line would be, ‘We defeated the Soviet superpower in the 1980s and now we’ve repeated that with the United States of America.’
“There would also be reputational consequences,” Eikenberry continued. “Even as we’re saying we’re committed to a long-term fight against ISIS [the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria], what would it do to our credibility if Afghanistan was descending into a civil war? As you connect the dots between Afghanistan and the rest of the world, we would have to consider the cost we would pay should we leave Afghanistan in ruins.”
At the same time, Eikenberry said U.S. credibility, and prestige, on the world stage can be overstated.
“People said at the end of the Vietnam War that the U.S. was finished and we’d never recover our reputation, but six years later under President Reagan we were able to get our reputation back,” he said.
It is too early to assess Obama’s performance in Afghanistan — or in the realm of foreign policy generally — but in Eikenberry’s opinion, the president has performed well.
“I think historians will give the president very good marks,” he said. “It’s a difficult time for him. Americans were very comfortable in his first term with his policy of retrenchment, not retreat. But I think the American people right now are going through a period of disquiet as they see developments in Ukraine and in the Middle East. There is a nervousness about whether what we had thought was retrenchment is retreat.
“It’s too early to tell, of course, but I think this is a president who came into office and very correctly saw that the U.S. was over-committing in terms of our global security obligations,” Eikenberry said. “He saw a war raging in Iraq and Afghanistan … and at the same time China was able to march forward and Russia was developing a new set of strategic goals that we’re seeing played out now.
“The president also saw a domestic economy that was in a real tailspin,” Eikenberry added. “He concluded he had several choices. He could try to pull back on some of those commitments, try to get allies to do more, or try to focus on the domestic foundations of power so you can get stronger and perhaps redefine your strategic goals and objectives as you get healthier.
“This is a president who has done all three,” Eikenberry said.
The former military commander also said that Obama has been judicious about committing American troops to confrontations overseas.
“He’s also been very careful about the use of military force,” Eikenberry said. “He knows that it is easy to commit forces into combat but it’s very difficult to extract them. You can commit forces with limited objectives and find several years later that the mission has expanded greatly…. This is a president who I believe plays for the long term. He knows that you look at the world and a threat emerges and sometimes the best thing to do is pause and examine what this threat actually is.
“Anything we can do to enlist the support of other actors and not make every battle out there an American battle works to the benefit of our country,” Eikenberry added. “It saves our resources and gives us a global profile where we’re not seen as a hyperactive global cop that roams the world looking for the next crisis and assumes any problem out there is one for the American people and our military to go resolve.”
On that note, Eikenberry made a particularly damning assessment of the U.S. decision to invade Iraq.
“Going into Iraq is clearly the greatest foreign policy blunder and maybe catastrophe the United States has had since the Vietnam War, although we can say perhaps the consequences have been greater than those of Vietnam,” he said.
Afghanistan, Eikenberry, is a different case. “The verdict is out on Afghanistan,” he said. “It is a much better place to live now than it was in 2002.”
Twelve years ago, less than 1 million Afghan children were in school. Today, nearly 8 million are attending school and about 2.8 million of them are girls. Eikenberry also cited significantly improved health care indexes, a solidifying Afghan Army and a parliament that not only respects the constitution, but also has a significant share of women, who hold 25 percent of the seats.
To be sure, serious problems remain: Corruption is rampant. The Afghan government would be broke if it weren’t for foreign assistance. The Taliban is nowhere near defeat and commands support, and fear, from many parts of the country. Women are treated as second-class citizens, or worse, in many deeply conservative villages. Poppy cultivation is at an all-time high, despite a $7 billion counternarcotics investment. And there is no guarantee that the Ghani-Abdullah partnership will survive — or that the U.S.-trained Afghan Army won’t turn into a major disappointment akin to their Iraqi brethren.
But Eikenberry says the grim headlines sometimes obscure the bigger picture of progress.
“They’ve managed, even in this very messy political process they went through, to end up with a national unity government underpinned by an election that the Afghan people sanctioned,” he said. “That is a very different way of transferring political power to the Afghan people than in 1993, when a civil war raged around Kabul and warlords fighting for control killed about 30,000 Kabul civilians.”
At the same time, Eikenberry conceded that the “extraordinary amount” of progress in Afghanistan has come at a great cost to the United States.
“In a couple of years that will probably add up to trillion dollars,” he said of the war’s cost. “There has also been a strategic cost that comes with this because the more the White House, the Pentagon and Department of State have to talk about Afghanistan — and over the past 10 years we’ve had to talk about it a lot — we are talking about China one less hour.
“Clearly Afghanistan is a better place,” Eikenberry concluded, adding that the country has “hardened” and that “al-Qaeda won’t be invited back in.”
“A lot of progress has been made, people are more prosperous and they are doing better than they have done at any time in Afghanistan’s modern history, but at what cost to America?”
About the Author
Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.