Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Kabul, is responsible for managing the civilian "surge" under President Barack Obama's Afghan strategy, as well as tending to the delicate relationship with President Hamid Karzai.
Speaking to RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique on the sidelines of NATO's recent Lisbon summit, Eikenberry played down disagreements with the Afghan president and predicted no major changes in the Obama administration's ongoing review of its Afghan strategy.
RFE/RL: We have heard a lot about recommitment to Afghanistan, a lot about agreement, but there are contentious issues out there. For example, the whole issue of night raids that President Hamid Karzai wants you to curb. What is happening on such issues?
Karl Eikenberry: President Karzai has been very clear; he appreciates the sacrifices that our people and the Afghans have made together. He recognizes that over a nine-year period of time, there's been a strong foundation upon which to build. But he's also clear that after this period of time the Afghan people increasingly; they want to take leadership. On the other hand, we have to make sure that as we move forward together -- hopefully increasing speed in transitions to deliver full Afghan leadership -- we have to make sure that this is done in a responsible and a prudent manner.
RFE/RL: One of the other major contentious issues in recent times is that of security contractors. President Karzai has been very firm in saying that they need to be shut down, period. Where are we on that issue?
Eikenberry: President Karzai, he talked about private security companies and the concerns that he had with those [companies], the ways that these form -- that these can actually cause insecurity in the country. I think he was frustrated at the inability of the international community and perhaps his ministries to respond. Now, under the leadership of the Ministry of the Interior in Afghanistan, I think that we have a very good process established to move forward to better implement, fully implement, President Karzai's decree No. 62 for the dissolution of private security companies. This also is a question of transitions as well.
RFE/RL: Sources close to Karzai characterize him as a changed man. This was a man who was pro-Western years ago. But people close to him now describe him as a man who has lost his trust in the Western effort in Afghanistan. Where do you think he stands?
Eikenberry: Look, we're here at this NATO summit at Lisbon. President Karzai [is] very much on the world stage here. He signed a long-term declaration with NATO. As well, he's always been very clear that he sees as central to Afghanistan's long-term security and stability a special relationship with the United States of America, which we're keen on having with the people of Afghanistan. Our commitment is one that's enduring, it's long-term.
Look, any kind of good friendship, any kind of close partnership, it's like family. You're going to have disputes, you're going to have differences, you're going to have disagreements.
RFE/RL: In recent times we have seen the NATO supply routes in Pakistan being closed. Do you see Pakistan buying into this whole transition thing, or do you think Pakistan is somehow not related or not central to the settlement in Afghanistan?
Eikenberry: Afghanistan, its long-term peace and prosperity, is only going to be guaranteed if it has constructive positive relationships with all of its neighbors. ...[O]ur commitment is to Afghanistan is we talk about an Afghanistan that's secured, an Afghanistan with our own efforts to help where we can to improve governance, to help where we can to improve the economic development of the country. All important. And then we add an important attribute to the Afghan state of the future, and that is an Afghanistan respected within the region, respected by its neighbors, and that's our commitment and our pledge to Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Ambassador Eikenberry, President [George] Bush famously said after 9/11 that we won't make a distinction between the terrorists and those who harbor them, and that of course was the Taliban. What is essentially the view, the U.S. government's view, of the Taliban? Are they looked upon as genuine Afghan political actors, or as terrorists, or as insurgents?
Eikenberry: It's entirely the responsibility of the Afghan people to come to grips with the question of reconciliation and how to achieve peace. What the United States has been very clear on is its full support for President Karzai and his government's position in which anyone can come back home and be returned to their communities, live in peace with respect and dignity in their homeland of Afghanistan, provided that they meet three conditions. And those three conditions are renouncing any ties to international terrorism; secondly, renouncing of course the use of violence; and the third is respect for the constitution, for the laws of the land. Within that framework the United States is confident that the Afghan people, who've had 30 years of war and conflict, and have a deep yearning for peace within those parameters, we're increasingly seeing the potential now for political reconciliation.
RFE/RL: Finally, the upcoming Afghan strategy review in December. Are we likely to see any major course correction?
Eikenberry: I won't prejudge the December review that's ongoing right now. Again, my friend General [David] Petraeus has said many times that for the first time in Afghanistan we have the inputs right, we've got the forces on the ground, we've got the civilians on the ground, we've got the right programs, we've organized ourselves effectively, we've got some big ideas that we've now translated into the delivery of results. All of those inputs, so to speak, that President Obama then ordered up in his 1 December 2009 West Point speech, all of those inputs finally arrived in the spring, in the summer of just this year. So we've had about a five, a six-month period where all of these inputs now are being brought to bear. So to have an extensive review in December, where we've only had five or six months of the new strategy properly resourced and being brought forward, that would not make good sense.