Ambassador Karl Eikenberry Discusses Experiences in Afghanistan

The former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan said it's time for the United States to reduce its presence in the country but added there are important reasons why a small military force will be needed for some time to come.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry said there are two remaining “critical missions” in Afghanistan, a country that continues to develop its “judicial framework.”

“One is counterterrorism…We need a military presence… and even more importantly we need the military infrastructure to enable the central intelligence agency to keep after its intelligence operations across the border. That’s what enabled us to locate bin Laden,” Eikenberry said.

“Secondly, we need U.S. military forces and NATO allies to help Afghanistan continue to build its army and police forces. They still need a lot of advisory and mentoring, he said.”

Eikenberry delivered the Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture at the Sanford School Thursday evening, discussing in public conversation with Duke Professor Peter Feaver his experiences while serving two tours of military duty in Afghanistan as well as his position as ambassador from 2009 to 2011.

Duke President Richard Brodhead introduced Eikenberry, who served 35 years in the U.S. Army before being named U.S. ambassador and chief of mission in Kabul.  

Eikenberry was working on the third floor of the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, when American Airlines flight 77 commandeered by Al Qaeda terrorists flew into the second floor of the building.

“That was my intro to 9-11, my intro to Afghanistan,” he said.

Between Eikenberry’s first military tour in 2002 and his service as commander of the American-led coalition forces in 2006, conditions had weakened.

“We really underestimated how dire the situation was in that country," he said. "A lot of mistrust among the people had built up through the era of the Soviet occupation and civil war with the Taliban. It was difficult, but we thought that time was on our side. We were extraordinarily successful with the initial intervention in terms of fracturing Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. In 2002, slowly out of our sight and increasingly into our sight, the Taliban reconstituted itself and they started then to cause additional problems for our efforts to try to stabilize the country.”

America’s engagement in the war in Iraq limited available resources and added to the obstacles facing troops in Afghanistan, he said.

In 2009, President Obama asked Eikenberry leave his position as deputy chairman of the NATO Military Committee to serve as ambassador. Taking over a civilian team was one of his greatest leadership challenges, he said, as he attempted to convince these civilians that he was no longer a general commanding a team of troops.

During his tenure as ambassador, he assisted the "surge" of American troops in Afghanistan in an effort to help reverse Taliban gains and stabilize the country. One of the most controversial facets of this authorization was President Obama’s decision to reveal an estimated time for the recovery of troops. Some criticized this as providing the enemy with an incentive to wait out the surge. However, Eikenberry views the decision to be correct.

“I think it was important both with regard to our military understanding that there was a time limit -- that they only had a certain amount of time to accomplish their tasks. I also think it was absolutely essential for the Afghan people and the Afghan leaders to know that there wasn’t the unending commitment.”

Despite continuing objections by Afghan president Hamid Karzai to a new bilateral security agreement, Eikenberry said he is hopeful that it will be approved. The bilateral security agreement provides for the legal status for the presence of U.S. troops and U.S. NATO allies.

The event was sponsored by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy and the Sanford School of Public Policy with support from the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Alexander Hamilton Society.