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Afghanistan Strategy: Getting on the Same Page

One of the key relationships that made the surge work in Iraq in 2007 was the close partnership between General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker. The two men put aside some personal and institutional prerogatives to work harmoniously together to implement a policy they both wholeheartedly believed in. A New York Times article  today suggests how far we are from this optimum situation in Afghanistan.

The Times runs the text of two cables by Karl Eikenberry, a former three-star general who is now the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, objecting to the counterinsurgency strategy advocated by General Stanley McChrystal, the four-star U.S. general and NATO commander. The existences of the memos had previously been reported in the fall, but their text indicates just how far apart the two men are — or at least were. Eikenberry indicates no confidence that a troop increase will make things better. Instead, he fears, it will only “increase Afghan dependency” — the same argument that was made by senior military and civilian commanders against increasing force levels in Iraq prior to 2007.

He is also damning about the leadership capacity of Hamid Karzai in ways that raise questions about whether he can work fruitfully with the Afghan president. He writes: “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner. … Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. … It strains credulity to expect Karzai to change fundamentally this late in his life.”

Eikenberry makes some good points about the lack of funding for civilian efforts and the “inadequate civilian structure” to partner with military efforts. But then he bizarrely makes the claim that “a relatively small additional investment in programs for development and governance would yield results that, if not as visible as those from sending more troops, would move us closer to achieving our goals at far lesser cost and risk.” Yet nowhere does he explain how more development aid could accomplish so much given the lack of capacity on the part of the Afghan government and civilian aid agencies that he bemoans elsewhere in the memo. Nor does he explain how aid dollars could be spent productively in a climate of pervasive insecurity. No doubt that’s why President Obama essentially endorsed McChrystal’s recommendations over Eikenberry’s.

Leave aside the merit — or lack thereof — of Ambassador Eikenberry’s cables. The real issue is whether he functions effectively with McChrystal while holding views so much at odds with the general’s. I know that Eikenberry told Congress in December, while testifying on the Obama plan for Afghanistan: “I can say without equivocation that I fully support this approach.” But he has never said what elements of his previous analysis he believes are no longer valid. Therefore, his support for the policy looks more pro forma than genuine.

This is a very troubling situation that calls out for top-level resolution to make sure that somehow America’s senior civilian and military representatives in Kabul get on the same page — otherwise success will be harder to achieve than it needs to be.


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