“We’ve done a lot there. We haven’t done it all well, but we should be proud of what we have done,” former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry M.A. ’94 said during his closing assessment of the United States’ role in Afghanistan. Eikenberry spoke to approximately 140 attendees about the transition to Afghan sovereignty in the Central Asian state Monday in Encina Hall’s Bechtel Conference Center.
Eikenberry, retired United States Army Lieutenant General, drew on his experiences in Afghanistan to assess progress — and identify expected challenges — in the transition period while delivering the 2012 Payne Distinguished Lecture. Previous lectures have been delivered by editor in chief of The Economist John Micklethwait, Bill Gates and former Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei.
Eikenberry started his lecture by discussing the beginning of his involvement in Afghanistan, citing the 9/11 attacks and American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon “literally underneath” his office.
“Little did I know that my entire life, my career, like it was for so many Americans, was to take a very dramatic change,” he said.
Eikenberry’s academic focus had been East Asian Studies, but the 2001 attacks and the declaration of war on Afghanistan in October of the same year constituted a “sharp departure” for him.
At the beginning of the talk, he maintained that despite serving as the Commander of the American-led Coalition forces from 2005 to 2007 and the U.S. Ambassador from May 2009 to July 2011, he was “not an expert on Afghanistan.” The statement elicited chuckles from the audience.
Four phases of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan
After following with a number of humorous anecdotes featuring mistranslations and ironic situations, Eikenberry spoke about the four phases of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to establish context for his discussion of challenges in moving forward.
He divided the stages chronologically, 2001 to 2003, 2004 to 2008, 2009 to 2011 and the current to future transition stage.
He described the first stage as one of urgency.
“At the time of course, the Bush administration was eager to quickly launch a counter-offensive into Afghanistan and strike at Al Qaeda,” he said. “Not a lot of thought at this point was about a comprehensive kind of state-building program, or a comprehensive stabilization and reconstruction program.”
Some of the actions taken by the United States during this stage, he said, would come back to “complicate policy,” particularly the formation of local alliances with militia to fight the Taliban.
The second stage was distinguished by deterioration in the security situation, marked by a drop in security in 2007.
“You started to now see in policy statements more discussion of what you could call the hardening of Afghanistan,” Eikenberry said, mentioning public declarations of frustration with President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai and critiques of Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan.
The third phase Eikenberry described began with the election of President Obama, and Eikenberry’s own appointment as ambassador. The military and civilian counterinsurgency surges marked this phase, following an assessment of the situation and General McChrystal’s recommendation for an increase in military troops.
In Nov. 2009, The New York Times published two classified cables by Eikenberry, which indicated his belief that a troop buildup would hurt the war effort, that were leaked. Eikenberry did not mention these objections in his talk.
“Gen. McChrystal’s assessment [was] that we’re getting to a tipping point in terms of security,” he said. “It’s starting to move very much in the Taliban’s direction, and so the response to this will have to be a recommended surge of military troops to help regain the momentum from the Taliban.”
“There was no question at that time that more military troops would be needed,” he added.
Eikenberry led the civilian surge, which he said “was designed to give a choice between the Taliban — which could provide justice but not services — and a better more accountable government of Afghanistan.”
This strategy included U.S. support for developing the rule of law, democratization and the economy of Afghanistan. He said it led to an increase in the number of civilians present at the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan from 325 to 1300, making it the largest U.S. embassy in the world.
Eikenberry argued that the surge was successful, “unquestionably” in the case of its military impact.
“There was absolutely no question that the Taliban momentum was shifted back against them and that we regained the momentum,” he said.
Special Operations Forces conducted a series of raids against Taliban mid-level and senior-level leadership that “absolutely decimated the Taliban’s … command control,” he said.
“On the civilian side,” he added, “There’s no question that gains were made in terms of politics in Afghanistan or in the building of political institutions.”
He also mentioned results of the Asia Foundation Survey of 2011 as evidence that the surge had positive effects.
“If we did not have the presence in Afghanistan, our military, our intelligence and our civilian teams … we would not be making steady progress against Al Qaeda,” he said. “You cannot think of Afghanistan … without thinking of the enablement that comes from Afghanistan.”
The final phase in U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was the focus of the remainder of his talk: the strategy of transition to Afghan sovereignty.
“What we’ve embarked upon … is a very ambitious program which over time will lead to the transfer of responsibility for security to Afghan policy and to the Afghan army,” he said, outlining a transition plan that will end NATO combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014. President Karzai announced the second wave of transition on Nov 27 of last year.
“I would say at this point in time that we’re doing reasonably well,” Eikenberry said. “With transition now we’ve got, on the military side, a renewed focus on the Afghan National Security Forces development … and a continuing focus against Al Qaeda.
He also mentioned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for a “diplomatic surge” in February 2011 as part of the transition strategy.
Eikenberry then moved to assess challenges to the transition strategy, mentioning Pakistan, the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), economic challenges and corruption as the four main potential obstacles.
He described corruption as a “massive,” “rampant” and “cancerous” problem in the country.
“Looking ahead to 2014, we’re not seeing the necessary steps being taken to ensure a better election,” he said. “There are no signs of electoral reform emerging.”
Implications of U.S. involvement overseas
Eikenberry ended by discussing the implications of U.S. campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq for American power overseas, drawing upon American historian Townsend Hoopes’ 1969 reflections on the United States’ role in Vietnam.
“If we think that we can continue to avoid discussions of cost and complexity, and try to continue to impose order on our terms without thinking through … consequences, I frankly have to say in leaving Afghanistan that I worry more and more about our own country experiencing our own East of Suez moment of overreaching,” he said, drawing a parallel with the end of the British empire after the Suez Crisis of 1956.
He also stressed the importance of reinvigorating the U.S. economy.
“We have the anomaly that we’ve got the best military in the world that is making Afghanistan safe for Chinese and Indian investments,” he said.
He told a story of his experience in the Southern Afghan province of Helmand, when tribal leaders asked him about Peace Corps and U.S. Aid workers who had assisted the region in the 1950s and 60s.
“The need for us, as Americans, is to remember what our roots of greatness were in the last century,” he said.
Audience members posed questions about the problems of narco-trafficking, American business interests, Pakistan and identity concerns in ethnically diverse Afghanistan.
“Although Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world’s poppy it consumes about 1 percent of that total,” Eikenberry said. “Look around, where’s the demand? To be angry and accusatory with the Afghans … we don’t have a very good grip on our demand problem either.”
Director of the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law (CDDRL) Larry Diamond, described the talk as “riveting, compelling, lucid, analytically powerful and honest.”