How We Got to Zero: General Eikenberry's Hail Mary
by Michael Collins
Robert Gates and Karl Eikenberry, Bagram.
US Defense Dept. photo by Cherie A. Thurlby
U.S. Afghan Envoy Urges Caution on Troop Increase
"WASHINGTON -- The United States ambassador to Afghanistan, who once served as the top American military commander there, has expressed in writing his reservations about deploying additional troops to the country, three senior American officials said Wednesday.
"The position of the ambassador, Karl W. Eikenberry, puts him in stark opposition to the current American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, who has asked for 40,000 more troops. New York Times, Nov. 11
This isn't just any envoy. General Karl Eikenberry has served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, the second as head of the Combined Forces Command. After the second Afghan tour, Eikenberry was Chairman of the NATO Joint Military Committee. He's a West Point graduate with advanced degrees from Harvard and Stanford and is fluent in Mandarin Chinese.
General McChrystal has asked for 50,000 troops in early October. By October 28, the president was said to favor a "McChrystal light" number as low as 15,000. On Nov. 7, just four days before Eikenberry's statement, McClatchy Newspapers put Obama's preferred number at 30,000. At this moment, the president is reported have rejected all of the troop increases on the table, according to Associated Press at 12:02 am EDT, today, November 12.
How did we get from McChrystal's request for 50,000 troop requests in early October to Eikenberry's "written reservations about deploying additional troops" just days before President Obama's planned decision?
The only thing we know for sure is that Eikenberry's statement was no accident. Clearly, there is dissent in the Pentagon and White House as evidenced by this publicly reported assessment by a serving ambassador and distinguished officer. Of interest, on troop levels, the Eikenberry statement agrees with the much criticized assessment of Vice President Joe Biden on made after a trip to Afghanistan
Two Paths - Obama's Hedge
When General Stanley McChrystal was appointed to command combined forces in Afghanistan, he put together his own team for the long haul:
"General McChrystal is assembling a corps of 400 officers and soldiers who will rotate between the United States and Afghanistan for a minimum of three years. That kind of commitment to one theater of combat is unknown in the military today outside Special Operations, but reflects an approach being imported by General McChrystal, who spent five years in charge of secret commando teams in Iraq and Afghanistan." New York Times, June 10
Little was know of the five year of secret commando work in the two nations until a Seymour Hersh gave a speech at the University of Minnesota on U.S. Intelligence policies. Hersh said:
"Right now, today, there was a story in the New York Times that if you read it carefully mentioned something known as the Joint Special Operations Command -- JSOC it’s called. It is a special wing of our special operations community that is set up independently. They do not report to anybody, except in the Bush-Cheney days, they reported directly to the Cheney office. … Congress has no oversight of it. It’s an executive assassination ring essentially, and it’s been going on and on and on." MinnesotaPost.Com March 11
According to Time Magazine, from 2003 through 2008, McChrystal "led the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)."
The March 11 description of Joint Special Operations Command, and its leader, General McCrystal, was seemingly contradicted by Hersh on May 19 (See analysis) but the cat was out of the bag on the general's tactics. Unless Hersh was referring to some other Joint Special Operations Command that McChrystal ran, we have a special type of general in charge of the war in Afghanistan.
A report in March validated the problems with the JSOC mission of commando actions eliminating enemies of the state: "The commander of a secretive branch of America’s Special Operations forces last month ordered a halt to most commando missions in Afghanistan, reflecting a growing concern that civilian deaths caused by American firepower are jeopardizing broader goals there" New York Times, March 9. In the same article, Iraq commander General David Petraeus was said to have "supported the decision to suspend the Special Operations missions."
Despite his record or, perhaps, because of it, General McChrystal was appointed to the Afghanistan command after these statements and controversies over JSOC.
Just two weeks later, President Obama appointed General Eikenberry as U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. In addition to his career achievements, Eikenberry's good relationships with the Karzai government and NATO were mentioned prominently.
Eikenberry was a logical choice as ambassador to Afghanistan given the ongoing military missions and his emphasis on improvements in living conditions for citizens. He'd held high level and top level command in the country for a total of thirty six months. During that time, he had concentrated on a multi level approach with an emphasis on building a strong civil base of for a government and military run by the people.
In testimony before Congress in February, 2007, Eikenberry outlined progress in the military effort and civic governance and the largest threat to success:
"The long-term threat to campaign success, though, is the potential irretrievable loss of legitimacy of the Government of Afghanistan. If the Afghan Government is unable to counter popular frustration with the lack of progress in reform and national development, the Afghan people may lose confidence in the nature of their political system." Congress, Feb. 17, 2007
Eikenberry listed progress in public education, infrastructure, and training efforts for Afghan police and military but stressed the need for more support for civilians in the forgotten war. He stressed the stakes for NATO in the largest ever non European military effort. While not "make or break," the stakes were high. He also made this highly significant point: "Pakistan’s military and security forces have taken significant casualties against the same enemy that we in Afghanistan face" Feb. 17, 2007
Eleven months into the new administration, we have radically different choices for policy in Afghanistan advanced by diametrically opposed military professionals appointed by the same president.
Why the Radical Split in Advice and Why Now
It seems that General McChrystal is on a special mission based a specific philosophy of warfare and that General Eikenberry is performing his duty according to his current assignment with an ongoing evaluation of the various players and facts at hand. McCrystal job has been killing what Seymour Hersh called "enemies of the state" in Afghanistan and Iraq. He's not finished. They're still out there. He made commitments to the 400 officers and soldiers that he hand picked. He doesn't want to let them down.
Given his history and assignments before his command role, everything he's done suggests that he would want to finish the job. Why wouldn't he push for as many more troops as he can get?
But the real questions are: does finishing that job make any sense and will more troops help finish the job?
Eikenberry's position has evolved over time. He once got along with Karzai but, as ambassador, during the recent presidential campaign, he appeared with the opposition candidates who accused Karzai of election fraud in the first election and pushed Karzai to overturn the initial disputed results that would have ruled out a runoff election.
Can you recall any U.S. ambassador ever showing up at a press conference with opposition candidates challenging the legitimacy of an election?
Eikenberry was interviewed on NPR just two days after he testified before Congress in 2007. He said, "The Taliban military forces remain a much weaker enemy. Whenever the Taliban masses on the battlefield, those Taliban forces are defeated, always in very short order." He went on to offer this: "… the challenge has been building the state of Afghanistan, extending the writ of governance. That has been a very steady growth of progress that we've had with the government of Afghanistan over the last six years" NPR Feb. 13, 2007.
Two and a half years later, General Eikenberry has "expressed in writing his reservations about deploying additional troops to the country" just at the point when President Obama was said to be announcing some level of troop increases. The key to success, as outlined by the general previously, was real progress in responsive and trustworthy civil governance that delivers for the people.
In his congressional testimony, Eikenberry quoted a poll in which, "almost 90% of the Afghan people consider reconstruction and economic development the most important requirement to improve their quality of life."
It is fair to assume that the illegitimate election played a major role in Eikenberry's questions about the future of the Afghanistan military mission. His recommendations represent a huge step given the stakes for the NATO military effort and the larger concerns about the nation. Other factors may have included the McChrystal emphasis killing "bad guys" and the inevitable deaths of innocents paired with lackluster U.S. financial support for Afghan rebuilding and development.
General Eikenberry is both a soldier and scholar of history and political science. He knows the history of occupations that fail to deliver for the populace and he's telling us right now that the U.S. can't succeed with more military forces in a nation run by an illegitimate president who has been exposed for election fraud. More troops are not the solution. In his view, success requires stronger governance and real democracy which means transparent elections free of fraud.
Had the attempt to capture Osama Bin Laden been just that, he'd have been captured or found dead and the United States would not be in this dilemma. But that begs the question. Of the choices this administration will make, which do not include immediate withdrawal, General Eikenberry's is the most clearly reasoned position and has the strongest immediate and historical basis by far, in my opinion.
But what kind of ongoing evaluation can we expect from an administration that split the policy difference in the first place by appointing General McChrystal as military commander and General Eikenberry as Ambassador? That's too much of a difference to split.
The White House's rapid downward trend in troop commitment from, 40,000 to zero for the moment indicates that an alarm bell is ringing. If they just face the truth, they'll announce that we've "hit bottom" and, as a result, we can't afford any more of this because we're flat broke. If they just listen to the people through public polling, they'll come up with something palliative that will allow the president to stay above 50% approval, at least until the next banking crisis. That something was to rely on the advice of General Eikenberry, at least for now.
This is almost the same process President Obama put the military through just after his inauguration when General Petraeus tried his push for more troops in Iraq (see analysis).. Obama's a very good poker player. Let's hope that we move beyond gaming to a foreign policy based on recognizing our limitations and inserting fundamental respect for the lives and well being of all citizens wherever they might be.
It would be helpful to review this 2007 testimony and apply the democratic principles at home as well as abroad:
"In closing, allow me to emphasize that we are now at a critical point where a strategic investment in capabilities is needed to accelerate the progress toward the desired goal of helping establish a moderate, stable, and representative Government of Afghanista n." General Karl M. Eikenberry, Congress, Feb 11, 2007.
That's what the general did. He tried to "help establish" a "representative government" by insisting on fair elections. When he discovered they weren't fair, he stood with the opposition in protest and used his influence to get another vote. When the "winner" of that runoff won because the process was so crooked, Eikenberry then advised there was no point in providing more troops since more troops were not the answer. The first step in the answer requires an honest election. He's right. The citizens of Afghanistan have the same needs and rights and deserve the same respect we deserve, the same that all people deserve. What a refreshing philosophy. It's almost cause for "hope."