Interview with LT Gen Karl Eikenberry

Gen Karl Eikenberry (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry is the commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan. Prior to his current assignment, he was the director for Strategic Planning and Policy for US Pacific Command at Camp HM Smith, Hawaii.

Lt. General Eikenberry has served in various strategy, policy, and political-military posts and is the recipient of numerous military awards and decorations. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, has earned 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.

This interview was conducted following Lt General Eikenberry's participation in the Asia Society program, Assessing the Afghanistan Campaign on May 1, 2006.


This week will mark your one year anniversary as commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan. What have been the principal challenges you have faced in this position, and how, on balance, would you rate the successes and failures of the last year?

Over the past year we have seen combinations of extraordinary progress in the political domain in various aspects of the building of the security forces. Set against that is the significance of some of the challenges that are remaining for us to achieve success. For instance, over the past year I had the honor of commanding the coalition force when the final political piece of the Bonn process was put into place: the parliamentary elections that occurred in September 2005. The election was very successful with some violence but in the main a very successful election that was conducted around the country. And that parliament has now been seated. Provincial councils, as part of that election process, are now in place and being stood up.

With the Afghan national security forces, now there's some 30,000 in the Afghan national army and they continue to make more progress, an increasingly tough and resilient force that's getting proven now out in the field in combat working with coalition forces. Afghan national police force now just starting to get stood up with a program that we expect over the coming year will deliver more results.

Challenges that we're facing though, very significant challenges in the area of narco-trafficking. Challenges that the state of Afghanistan will face in trying to improve their governance as they're facing problems of corruption.

Despite the fact that during his March 2006 visit to Afghanistan, President George Bush applauded Afghan President Karzai as an "inspiration" to others seeking freedom, the anti-government insurgency in Afghanistan is growing and presents, according to intelligence reports, a greater threat than at any point since late 2001. What do you think accounts for this increase?

Well what I would say is that the so-called insurgency -- the associated movements of Al Qaeda, Taliban, Haqqani, Hekmatyar's group -- have certainly changed their tactics over the last year. Reluctant and not considering it wise on their part to frequently mask their formations as they did last year, when they suffered some very serious defeats at our hand… But they have changed their tactics and their tactics now is increasingly resorting to acts of terror: suicide bombers, improvised explosive devices, burning schools down, committing atrocities. Efforts to try to undermine the will of the Afghan people and to erode their faith and the credibility and the strength of the state.

I disagree that the Taliban and their affiliated movements of Al Qaeda are the strongest that they have ever been. I would say that they have changed their tactics. I would say that as the government of Afghanistan continues to advance into new areas where traditionally the influence of the state has not been found, even after 2001, that as the enemy is pushed into these spaces, the enemy is contesting the advance of the state. So I'd sum this all up by saying that at the end of the day it's not that this is a strong enemy. It's that the institutions of the state are still fragile and in certain instances are still weak.

In a recent report published by the Council on Foreign Relations, in an attempt to account for the change both in the form that the insurgency has taken, as well as the frequency of the violence, Barnett Rubin has suggested that, "Afghanistan and the Arab world have now switched places: whereas before 9/11 Arab jihadists created a base for terrorism in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq now provides a training and testing ground for new jihadi tactics, which have spread to Afghanistan." Could you comment on this?

I wouldn't speculate on the connection between tactics being used against the government of Iraq and our forces there. I would not speculate on the relationship between that and tactics that the enemy is using against the government of Afghanistan's forces and our forces. Clearly our forces and the Afghan national security forces and the people of Afghanistan, some of the attacks that are occurring are under the influence of so-called foreign fighters. And clearly those foreign fighters play a role in terms of funding. They play a role in support for the Taliban and associated movements. They play a role in terms of providing training and expertise for tactics that are being used against us. But again, I wouldn't want to speculate on a relationship between Iraq and Afghanistan. There's the obvious point though that has to be made that we are up against, all of us are up against an international terrorist network. And the ability of the enemy within that network then to move tactics, training and capabilities across the network is something that I think we're all aware of.

You spoke about this a little bit in your talk this afternoon: I wanted to clarify whether NATO troops in Afghanistan have the same war fighting mandate or abilities as US troops do.

The rules of engagement that NATO has adopted for its forces as it goes and expands into what we call stage three, the expansion into the south, the rules of engagement which they have classified those as, let's say, robust rules of engagement and that will allow them to prosecute the mission.

So in other words by the time they reach that stage they will have the same capabilities as US troops operating there do?

Well it's two different things you're asking. Talking about rules of engagement is one and that is broadly what are the missions that the forces that are being assigned into regional command south - what are those sets of missions that they're being assigned and the authorities to prosecute those. Those will be robust and those will be appropriate for the conditions that they'll be facing in regional command south.

Now, as far as the capabilities of the NATO forces go, one of the very interesting things about the NATO-ISAF expansion, something I didn't talk about in my presentation, is that actually there will be more forces and more capability, more military forces and more military capability with the NATO transition than there are today. So in regional command south when you add up all of these different forces that are going to be operating down there - the British in much greater numbers, the Canadians, the Dutch - you put all of that together, more troops and much more capability. And then as we come around to the east, it will look about the same in the east, it will still be predominately US in the future as it is today. Net result though is more forces on the ground, more aggregate capabilities throughout Afghanistan for international military forces with the NATO-ISAF expansion.

One of the things that you mentioned in your talk was that there are concerns that the American military diminishing its troops is a sign of diminishing US commitment to Afghanistan. But what you are saying is that these concerns are misplaced because in fact the troop presence will be greater with NATO-ISAF expansion.

Two points about that. First of all, within this entire aggregate NATO force as it expands, the United States by far will be the largest troop contributor nation. The US by far will be the largest provider of all of these kinds of capabilities: logistic capabilities, intelligence capabilities, helicopter capabilities. We'll be the largest provider of those. And then second, in aggregate, the entire NATO force lay-down in Afghanistan -- again caveat here: we're not certain, there still have to be political decisions made before it gets to this final phase of expansion across the entire country -- but as we look ahead, our forecast would be then that the total set of NATO capabilities, including those of the US, will be greater than we have on the ground today.

The CFR report by Barnett Rubin also argues that, "More than four years after the initial offensive and the establishment of what is supposed to be a fully sovereign Afghan government, US forces and their contractors still enjoy full 'freedom of action' without any status of forces agreement. The Bush administration's insistence on independence for US forces and impunity for contractors is undermining support for Coalition presence, damaging its sustainability." Do you agree with this?

You know the way that we're operating in Afghanistan, what is our primary mission right now for the coalition forces in Afghanistan? Let's not say our primary mission, but what is our main effort? What are we going to put the most of our intellectual effort, the most of our material resources, the most of our work behind? Our primary, main effort right now is the building of Afghan national security force capability. So in every dimension we're working closely with the army and we're supporting our State Department and the German efforts to build the police. We are fully partnered with them. We do not operate anywhere in Afghanistan, on any missions with only rare exceptions, without the Afghan national army partnered with us.

If you were to look today compared to two years ago at how we operate, it's been transformational. Because we've had success in building the Afghan national army. And the Afghan national police. And we're shifting to now… let's say a partnership of equals is our aspiration and we're hoping over the next several years for the Afghan national security forces to be in the lead with us providing support to them.

So that's a long way of saying that our aspiration is to help the Afghans stand up and build credible security forces, army and police. Which is vital to their own exercise of sovereignty. You know the Afghan people do aspire for their national security forces to be in the lead. They aspire to a day in which years hence they don't have international military forces in Afghanistan. Right now they're very supportive of our presence but our main effort is trying to meet what their own goals are. And that is to have their own capable, credible, respected security forces within the army and the police. Which then puts them in a position where all of these kinds of security force operations are being conducted by Afghans.

Is there any resistance though to a status of forces agreement on the part of the US?

I'm hesitating here because in my time in command this has not even been raised here. But that is a good point. As we talk about transitions ourselves, that is a point we've got to raise with the Afghans.

In an attempt to address the difficult relationship between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US has set up a tripartite commission of force commanders and senior officials to develop a coordinated strategy against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. What are the main obstacles to coordinated activity between the Pakistani, Afghan and American military?

Well first of all there are the practical challenges of coordinating and cooperating our activities in what is a very challenging area geographically. Eastern and southeastern and southern Afghanistan. And in the corresponding border areas of Pakistan. So those are physical challenges which you face. Tough terrain, tough areas to operate in.

And then secondly there's just the challenge of having these military forces and trying to solve problems like communications between the forces and coming up with understandings and protocols that allow us to talk. Those are tactical kinds of problems.

Then shifting up to the very highest level there are problems of confidence building. Countries are very much sometimes constrained by challenges of history and geography. And in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan: a complex relationship and a very positive relationship in the 1980s when Pakistan provided great support to Afghanistan in the jihad against the Soviet Union and harbored huge numbers of Afghan refugees, as they still do today. Then the 1990s and beyond which has led to challenges of mutual confidence between the two sides.

If our starting point is that all sides are dealing with a common enemy and there's a firm recognition by all that there is a common enemy then we should be able to build upon that. Over time our hope is that through interaction and combined efforts to go after this common enemy, with an understanding as well that this is not necessarily a zero sum game, then there will be greater trust. If you look at the win/wins that are out there, it was pointed out to me that during the Taliban years, the trade between Afghanistan and Pakistan was some $20 million. Now it's $1.2 billion a year between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Are there ways on both sides to find communities and groups that see it in their own interest for relations to advance between the two states, beyond the military ties? I think the answer is yes.

In a recent editorial in the Washington Post, Richard Holbrooke has said that Waziristan and North-West Frontier Province in Pakistan have become "a major sanctuary in which the Taliban and al-Qaeda train, recruit, rest and prepare for the next attacks on US, NATO and Afghan forces inside Afghanistan", and that Osama bin Laden and the Taliban leader Mullah Omar are also hiding there. How can the American military ever succeed in its mission in the region if the base of insurgent operations is now located in a country widely touted as a major ally of the US in the war against terrorism?

Well I would not want to talk about matters of intelligence in a public domain. But if you look at Pakistan's actions over the last several years, Pakistan has arrested and killed more Al Qaeda than any other country. And they are a great ally on the war on terror. I talked earlier about what we're working on through the tripartite agreement and through our dialogue with Pakistan and Afghanistan to improve our coordination with them and to improve ways of coming after this problem that all three of us are facing in a common fashion.

Last question. A recent report by the Congressional Research Service estimated that the cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan may reach $811 billion. And that to date, 71 per cent of total war costs have been spent in Iraq and 21 per cent in Afghanistan with the remainder being used for enhancing security all over the world. Could you comment on the extent to which budgetary pressures and/or military over-extension may compromise the war in Afghanistan in the long term?

I'm very comfortable with the level of the military effort that we have in Afghanistan. I would say that internationally in terms of reconstruction efforts, I emphasize internationally --not for the US -- that we're going to have to perhaps do more in terms of long term building of the infrastructure. To repair the infrastructure of Afghanistan. The expansion of social services. I'm comfortable that over the next year or two we have an adequate effort but longer term it's going to be essential that the international community maintain a robust level of effort there.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.