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Why an Afghan Troop Surge Won't Work: The Karl Eikenberry Memos

US Ambassador to Afghanistan Warns of Karzai Government's Incompetence

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Karl Eikenberry Mug
U.S. State Department
As President Obama spent the fall of 2009 debating whether to send additional troops to Afghanistan, the American ambassador in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, had one message for the president: don't.

Sending more troops "on a large, all-or-nothing" mission might be useful in the short run to better control the country and reduce Taliban influence. But the gains would be temporary, and would aggravate greater problems than they'd solve--namely, the dependence on U.S. troops by the corrupt and unreliable government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

And recent history suggests there may not even be such short-term gains. "The last time we sent substantial additional forces--a deployment totaling 33,000 in 2008-2009--overall violence and instability in Afghanistan intensified," Eikenberry warned.

Eikenberry was the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan for 18 months from 2006 to 2007. He's seen the country from the military and civilian angle. His two secret memos to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, written on Nov. 6 and Nov. 9, 2009, were published in full by The New York Times on Jan. 26, 2010. By then, Eikenberry claims he was in agreement with Obama's troop increase. But Eikenberry did not explain how the concerned he raised in November were resolved.

Here are the main points of Eikenberry's two memos:

Problems With Hamid Karzai

Eikenberry is unequivocal about Afghan President Hamid Karzai: "President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner." Karzai, in Eikenberry's analysis, wants to use American power to prop up his own. He's not interested in building a civil Afghan society. He's not interested in assuming the burdens of national security. He's not even interested in tackling his government's endemic corruption. He wants power and protection. "Sending more combat forces will only strengthen his misconceptions about why we are here," Eikenberry writes, leaving no room for hope that Karzai can change "this late in his life and in our relationship."

The ambassador says Afghanistan itself is equally unprepared to develop into a functional nation when Afghans have no interest in national unity, when the country has few sources of revenue to build any institutions, and few means to deliver services to citizens. Increasing either military or civilian assistance will increase dependence, not develop the country, Eikenberry argues.

Afghan Security Forces Are Overrated

"We overestimate the ability of Afghan security forces to take over," Eikenberry writes. The goal is for Afghan forces to control their country by 2013. Eikenberry's conclusion: the goal is far-fetched. Karzai isn't doing anything to build up the forces. And "simply keeping the force at current levels requires tens of thousands of new recruits every year to replace attrition losses and battlefield casualties." Increasing foreign troops would steepen the problems with the Afghan army, not alleviate them, as the Afghan government would feel less urgency to maintain its own troop levels and the troops themselves would senses that, with a surge, foreign troops can do the dirty work and take the casualties instead.

Challenges facing the national police are even stiffer because policemen are paid less and face higher risks as they reach into villages and districts where even the Afghan army won't go. Rather than increasing foreign troop levels, Eikenberry recommends paying police and army recruits more.

Civilian Infrastructure Is Nonexistent

Eikenberry is almost contemptuous of the attention given the military approach for being at the expense of more attention to civilian development. Even if the military approach scores some successes, civilian governance is the heart of the problem. Any progress on that score is bound to be slow and uneven--or worse, if it's left unattended. The military surge is doing just that--leaving the civilian sector unattended.

When the American embassy in Kabul requested $2.5 billion for development and governance assistance last summer, the Obama administration rejected it--even as it prepared to increase military spending by $60 billion a year.

"Progress on governance, anti-corruption, rule of law, and reconstruction will ultimately determine our success," Eikenberry writes, "but our coalition efforts will remain less than optimum unless a stronger civilian structure is created."

The problem: There is no clear line of leadership on civilian development in Afghanistan, as there is on military leadership. The United States should assume leadership on both counts, Eikenberry recommends--a contradiction with his analysis that the more the United States takes on, the more dependent Afghans will be on the United States. Eikenberry leaves the contradiction unresolved.

The Pakistan Problem

For all the outlays of American military power in Afghanistan, "more troops won't end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain," Eikenberry writes. Those sanctuaries in Waziristan and in Balochistan are the source of Afghanistan's greatest instability. The Pakistani military's Waziristan assault has already withered. Pakistan never took on the sanctuaries in Balochistan.

"As we contemplate greatly expanding our presence in Afghanistan, the better answer to our difficulties could well be to further ratchet up our engagement with Pakistan," Eikenberry writes, without explaining what he means.

Eikenberry's Recommendations

Rather than send in 40,000 more troops, Eikenberry recommended a more open and focused debate on what best strategy could attain specific results, especially through non-military means. He was critical of the military's counter-insurgency strategy because it focused too narrowly (if effectively) on Afghanistan, without taking in Pakistan. The Obama administration may feel that it addressed those concerned with its stepped up "drone war" on the sanctuaries.

The administration did not, however, address the concerns over improving civilian governance in Afghanistan, thus leaving the country's most important long-term issue dangling.

For now, the Obama administration's approach "will dig us in more deeply." For what, and until when: those questions are also left dangling.

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