Karl Eikenberry on a “good enough” strategy for Afghanistan

Karl Eikenberry is the Oksenberg-Rohlen Distinguished Fellow and Director of the U.S-Asia Security Initiative at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center. He is a Stanford University Professor of Practice, and an affiliate at the FSI Center for Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law, Center for International Security Cooperation, and The Europe Center.

Prior to his arrival at Stanford, he served as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from May 2009 until July 2011, where he led the civilian surge directed by President Obama to reverse insurgent momentum and set the conditions for transition to full Afghan sovereignty. 

Before his appointment as Chief of Mission in Kabul, Eikenberry had a thirty-five year career in the United States Army, retiring in April 2009 with the rank of Lieutenant General. His military operational posts included commander and staff officer with mechanized, light, airborne, and ranger infantry units in the continental United states, Hawaii, Korea, Italy, and Afghanistan as the Commander of the American-led Coalition forces from 2005 to 2007. 

He has served in various policy and political-military positions, including Deputy Chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium; Director for Strategic Planning and Policy for U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith, Hawaii; U.S. Security Coordinator and Chief of the Office of Military Cooperation in Kabul, Afghanistan; Assistant Army and later Defense Attaché at the United States Embassy in Beijing, China; Senior Country Director for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; and Deputy Director for Strategy, Plans, and Policy on the Army Staff.

He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, has master’s degrees from Harvard University in East Asian Studies and Stanford University in Political Science, and was a National Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He also earned an Interpreter’s Certificate in Mandarin Chinese from the British Foreign Commonwealth Office while studying at the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense Chinese Language School in Hong Kong and has an Advanced Degree in Chinese History from Nanjing University in the People’s Republic of China. 

The recipient of multiple military awards, he has also received the U.S. Department of State Distinguished, Superior, and Meritorious Honor Awards, Director of Central Intelligence Award, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award as well as other awards for his public service.

On February 13, 2017, he spoke with Chuyi Sheng CMC '17. Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Eikenberry and the CMC M.M.C. Athenaeum.

The situation in Afghanistan deteriorated significantly when the U.S. and NATO transferred full security responsibility to Kabul in 2014. Since then, the Taliban has been growing in strength and regaining territory. What are the reasons the Afghan government remains fragile and weak, as the Taliban grows in strength? 

First of all, when the transition of governance and security to Afghans occurred in 2014, the national army and police were used to the full support of U.S. and NATO forces. They had to make adjustments in their operations to adapt to new challenges. Second, the international community was spending heavily in the region. With the drawdown of these foreign troops, Afghanistan had a severe economic shock. As NATO pulled back, the Afghan economy went into depression and the unemployment rate quickly increased. Third, historically it has been difficult to govern Afghanistan and the many years of conflict had exacerbated the situation. Providing security and service throughout the country inevitably is challenging for Kabul.

It is not necessarily that the Taliban is a strong and formidable force, but the Afghan government remains weak. The Taliban exploits the political vacuum and the vulnerability of the country. For instance, the Taliban thrives when the national government suffers from rampant corruption. Second, the Taliban enjoys sanctuary and support from Pakistan. It is difficult for the U.S., NATO, and especially the Afghan government to bring stability back to the country when their enemies have asylum across the international borders. 

Did the Obama administration’s approach make sense at the time? Should the U.S. have maintained higher troop levels in Afghanistan after 2014? 

There main debate within the Obama administration was about the extent of the reduction of troops but not whether troops should be withdrawn. There were 130,000 international military forces in 2012; and it was essential that the Afghan government and its security forces take the lead, or they would be on international life support forever. The pace of withdrawal was contentious. There could be an argument that the pace was too fast and conflicts followed. President Obama had originally hoped that the U.S. military presence would decrease to several hundred at the end of 2016. His administration made adjustments when the security situation worsened in Afghanistan. The president took the best advice from his military commanders and changed the policy. The number of the U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan is now about 8,500. 

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani criticized Pakistan for waging an "undeclared war" against his country by providing sanctuary for terrorist groups. Given the significant numbers of Taliban fighters hiding in Pakistan, how will this impact the future Afghanistan-Pakistan relationship? 

There is definitely a negative impact. When President Ghani came to power in 2014, he made his best effort to form an agreement with Pakistan to fight international terrorism and violent extremism together, but Pakistan did not reply with sincerity. The country still harbors Afghan Taliban leaders and provides sanctuary and degrees of support. Unless Pakistan closes the door to the Afghan Taliban and tells them that they are no longer welcomed on Pakistani territory, it will be expensive and time consuming for the Afghans to strengthen their government and security forces. And it will be difficult for Afghanistan to find enduring peace. 

How can Afghanistan and the U.S. have an effective military campaign in Afghanistan if the origins of threats are in Pakistan? Will Washington or Kabul pressure Islamabad to put down groups, such as the Haqqani Network and the Taliban, to prevent cross-border attacks? 

Whenever a country is fighting an insurgency and the insurgent group enjoys sanctuary and support from a neighboring country beyond its borders, it is difficult for any government to successfully bring the fight to a conclusion. For the U.S., there is a continuing commitment to the Afghan government. The Trump administration will continue to provide security assistance and combat support to the security forces and to offer development assistance and financial support to the government. International aid and investment exist to strengthen the country and improve the economy. However, these efforts will be costly and prolonged unless Pakistan changes its policy toward the Taliban. There are only two ways to make Pakistan revise its strategy. First, Pakistan’s support to Taliban becomes a double-edged sword and threatens its domestic security. Second, the regional neighbors of Afghanistan and major powers within the area come together and adopt policies that respect and safeguard the country’s sovereignty. Other countries need to apply political pressure on Pakistan to change its conduct. It especially requires the support of China. 

What is the agenda of Pakistan in Afghanistan and what can the country gain from tolerating the existence of a terrorist group within its border? 

The reasons behind Pakistan’s strategy are complex, but there are major geopolitical concerns and a domestic agenda of national unity. Geopolitically, Pakistan sees the region under the shadow of India, its much larger neighbor. Pakistan fought and lost all three wars against India. The country does not have much geopolitical depth and is increasingly overwhelmed by the size and wealth of India. If Pakistan has a future conflict with India, it will rely on Afghan space in order to fight in depth. Pakistan also has a domestic interest strongly linked to Afghanistan. A major challenge faced by Pakistan is to bring unity among its different ethnic groups. The country has four ethnic groups and a large one is the Pashtuns, which are not only found in Pakistan, but also in Afghanistan. Pakistan is concerned with ethnic unity and tries to cultivate a national identity for its people. Will a strong Afghanistan become a magnet and attract Pashtuns in Pakistan? Islamabad is worried about this possibility. In my view, these external and internal political considerations intertwine with each other, leading to a policy that undermines the Afghan government. A weak Afghanistan is in line with the best interests of Pakistan. 

It is worth pointing out that Pakistan conducts offensive operations against terrorists on its own soil. It has been at war with Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups that are enemies of the U.S.. The problem with Pakistan is that it is selective in terms of whom to combat. The country has a sympathetic view toward terrorist and violent extremist groups that are against Afghanistan or its geopolitical enemy, India. The U.S. does not have a combination of carrots and sticks to change Pakistan's behavior and has not enjoyed great success in persuading the country to alter its actions. One of the keys here is China. China has not only a special relationship with Pakistan, but also a deep concern about international terrorism. Some of the groups that operate in Pakistan and Afghanistan are also conducting operations within China’s northwest. Can China find a way to promote more positive behavior from Pakistan in terms of Afghanistan? That is my hope. 

What is your opinion about the trilateral meeting among Russia, China and Pakistan about the situation in Afghanistan?

The U.S. was not invited to the conference, and more importantly, Afghanistan was excluded. Major political powers discussed the future of Afghanistan without Afghanistan at the table. It is not surprising that the gathering raised concerns of President Ghani and the Afghan people. The geopolitics in the region is extraordinarily complex. There is a long history behind each country’s involvement in Afghanistan. They consider the current situation in the country through the prism of regional politics. It is positive to have regional actors sitting down and talking about Afghanistan. In order to bring lasting peace to the country, the international community needs the agreement and support from not only Pakistan, but also Iran, India, China, Russia and the U.S.. Having more dialogue provides efficiency and transparency in terms of how people can work together to solve the Afghan problem. A lack of transparency will be troublesome, however. 

The occupation of Afghanistan is now the longest war in the U.S. history and it has cost more than $800 billion. Yet the War in Afghanistan did not receive much attention in the U.S. presidential campaigns and debates. Why has the U.S. war in Afghanistan not been a more salient issue in U.S. politics recently? 

First, neither candidates spoke about Afghanistan during the presidential election. America’s major overseas combat operation is now in Afghanistan. There are 8,500 soldiers and they are taking casualties. Having no candidate discuss the issue was troubling. American politics is now more about character assassinations and accusations about personal misconduct than it is about real and urgent issues. Second, America has volunteer armed forces in Afghanistan. If we draft or conscript an army, then every American mother, father, spouse, and child will be concerned about their families that could serve in distant Afghanistan under combat conditions. The fact that the U.S. has volunteer armed forces compartmentalizes oversea combat operations and American people tend to ignore these military actions. 

What do you think about the low support rate of the war of Afghanistan in the U.S.? Survey data shows that the support is even lower than the Vietnam War. 

There is a big difference here. When we discuss the lack of support, we are talking about the 8,500 soldiers who are stationed in the country. They are all volunteers. During the Vietnam War, we had 550,000 soldiers at the height of the war. They were draftees and conscripts and America had a much smaller population base back then. The America public was directly connected to the war because their family members had no choice but to join the war. The support for the war in Afghanistan is now much lower than it was in the aftermath of 9/11. Back in 2002 and 2003, there was huge support for combat operations and missions in Afghanistan. The American people don’t have any line on their tax payment to specify how much money is spent on military operations and development programs in Afghanistan and they have no close family members fighting in the war against their will. People don’t pay close attention to the situation in Afghanistan and it is not their priority. The low support rate is rather understandable. 
On February 9th, General Nicholson told Congress that he needed a few thousand more soldiers to better train Afghan forces. Do you expect the new Trump administration to increase troop levels or change military strategy? Did we learn more about President Trump’s intentions following his first phone call with President Ghani after his inauguration? 

I would recommend anybody who is interested in the issue to read General Nicholson’s statement for his testimony in front of the House and Senate Armed Services Committee, which is publicly available. I read the document carefully and agree with his assessment. His evaluation was fair and his recommendations were sound. To answer the question about the reaction or strategy of President Trump, I don’t know at this point. I do think that the Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, with his long military experience and service will look positively at these recommendations. 

General Nicolson carefully mentioned that there is currently a stalemate in Afghanistan that slightly favors the government. If the Trump administration has the desire to break the stalemate with military operations and help the Afghan government gain momentum, the administration will need additional troops to accomplish the goal. It will be a tough choice for President Trump and his team. 

Many expect the new administration to make a thorough review of the situation in Afghanistan and then make decisions based upon diplomatic and military advice. The decisions made by the new administration will be consequential. If the president decides to change course and minimize the U.S.’s efforts in Afghanistan, then he will need to make the decision within his first year in office. If the U.S. downplays its presence in Afghanistan, the security of the country will certainly deteriorate. Anybody sitting in the White House will not want to face a worsening Afghanistan at the end of his term of office. The last thing a president wants is to have Afghanistan descending into chaos one year before the new election campaign. If Trump intends to fundamentally change the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, he should make the decision early. 
What strategies should Washington and Kabul pursue in order to slow the pervasiveness of corruption? Should the U.S. pursue a “nation-building” strategy—a strategy criticized by both Obama and Trump? Are there any specific mistakes that the Trump administration should avoid? 

The problem of corruption in the Afghan government and in its security forces is severe. There are multiple challenges. First, it is inevitable that corruption occurs in the parliament, the executive branch, and the judiciary of Afghanistan. The international community has spent massively in Afghanistan since 2003. A lot of money poured into a country that has no institutional capacity to absorb it. The lack of accountability and rule of law means that corruption proliferates and becomes hard to control. Second, narcotics trafficking, which generates $ 2 billion revenue every year, further exacerbates the problem. It is difficult to have government accountability with widespread criminal activity. Third, the international community’s spending is declining. Both the Afghan government and people are uncertain whether the enterprise of modern Afghanistan will be successful. If you are a rational person serving in the Afghan government or military and you are not confident of the future of the country, it is not surprising that you are going to steal money from government projects and transfer them to the bank accounts of your family members. It is going to take a long time for Kabul to adequately address these problems. If the security within the country can improve slowly, Afghanistan will find a new normal where institutions are more organic and less dependent on international aid and investment. Degrees of accountability will appear within the government and the security forces. Then the country can effectively address its problems and I remain cautiously optimistic about the future of Afghanistan.
If we go back to 2002, there was a series of resolutions adopted by the United Nations to provide the Afghan people with security and to help them develop a functional government and economy. After 9/11, there existed a high degree of optimism about what a state-building strategy could achieve. The height of optimism occurred from 2009 to 2011. When the Obama administration first came into office, they also debated about the possibility of state-building. They later reached the conclusion that there was no silver bullet or magic formula that could miraculously transform Afghanistan into a robust democracy or a rapidly developing economy. I think these hopes, in retrospect, were misplaced. It is not that Afghanistan cannot accomplish these goals over decades. However, the rapid transformation is unrealistic and we cannot build nations within the timeframe of 15 years.

How will you evaluate the U.S. performance in Afghanistan and what are suggestions for the Trump administration? 

There is a question about what’s efficient and a question about what’s effective. If you check the U.S. expenditures on Afghanistan, you will find that many projects and operations were hugely inefficient, given the current situation in the country. Inputs of billions of dollars did not bring the desired outcomes. If we evaluate these programs in terms of effectiveness, then it is harder to judge the worthiness of this spending. Taking education as an example, if people audit the education system in Afghanistan and visit every school house, they will find fraud, waste, and abuse, with ghost teachers on the payroll of the Ministry of Education. However, if people ask the general question about how Afghanistan is doing today, versus the dark days under the Taliban, they will find miraculous transformation. There are many more students in school, and 35 to 40 percent of students in secondary education are female.

There are two general rules that the Trump administration needs to pay close attention to. Back to the discussion about Pakistan, the U.S. should be realistic. The more America wants to achieve in Afghanistan, the more it will need to focus on Pakistan. Even though working with Pakistan cannot solve all problems, addressing the challenge posed by Pakistan is essential for the success of any future Afghan policy. Whatever strategy the Trump administration will employ, they need to make sure that it is a long-term policy, which the Afghans do more and Americans do less. It is easy to have a mini surge of forces to combat Taliban or a little bit more investment to boost the economy, but these short-term solutions will only create new dependency within Afghanistan. When General Nicholson asked for several thousand more U.S. troops, he had made a strong argument and I agreed with him. However, it is always important to keep in mind what the eventual transition plan for Afghanistan will be. 

Chuyi Sheng
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Chunyi ShengStudent Journalist
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