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Exit Interview: Eikenberry On Tensions With Karzai, Iran's Influence, And The Security Transition

Karl Eikenberry, the outgoing U.S. ambassador for Afghanistan, speaks during an exclusive interview with Rahimullah Samandar, the bureau chief of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, in Kabul on July 14.

Karl Eikenberry, the outgoing U.S. ambassador for Afghanistan, speaks during an exclusive interview with Rahimullah Samandar, the bureau chief of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, in Kabul on July 14.

The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, is a relative newcomer to the world of diplomacy. Before taking the diplomatic posting, he was a career military man. Eikenberry served in the U.S. Army for more than three decades and as a lieutenant general was the top commander in Afghanistan before he retired.

He is being replaced in Kabul by the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Pakistan, Ryan Crocker.

Eikenberry famously rebuked Hamid Karzai in June for statements the Afghan president made impugning the integrity of coalition forces in the country. "When Americans, who are serving in your country at great cost -- in terms of life and treasure -- hear themselves compared with occupiers, told that they are only there to advance their own interest and likened to brutal enemies of the Afghan people," Eikenberry said, "... our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on."

In a leaked classified memo in 2009, Eikenberry also expressed serious concerns to U.S. President Barack Obama about the efficacy of committing additional troops to Afghanistan, in part due to what he called Karzai's "corruption, competence, and legitimacy."

Eikenberry sat down for an exclusive interview with RFE/RL’s Kabul bureau chief Rahimullah Samandar in the Afghan capital. Eikenberry talked about the transition to full Afghan military control, his disagreements with Karzai, and Iranian support for the Taliban.

RFE/RL: Given the current situation in Afghanistan, what's your forecast for the future?

Karl Eikenberry: I think that the plan that's been agreed to by the government of Afghanistan, the United States, and NATO ISAF for [the] security transition to be completed by 2014 is a sound plan. It’s an achievable plan. That plan, when realized, will then have Afghan army and police responsible for security throughout the country. In other words, the government of Afghanistan will have sovereign control of its own security and the protection of its people.

In order to achieve this goal, which is ambitious, certain things must be done. We have to have a continued, steady increase in the quality and the quantity of the Afghan National Army and police in order to replace the NATO ISAF forces that are still serving in your country. But I think it’s a realistic plan, and as I said I think it’s achievable.

What we anticipate, as long as we’re welcome here, is that for many more years we’ll have our military forces provide training assistance, assistance in equipping your forces, providing certain capabilities that your forces may lack, for years into the future. And we also would anticipate that your forces and ours will serve together in conducting counterterrorist operations against our common international terrorist enemies.

RFE/RL: Many Afghans are concerned that the current security forces, especially the army and police, are made up of former militia members -- from the jihadi groups, the former communist militia, and the Taliban militia. So there is a worry that after 2014 these forces could revert to their old militia formations. What's your response to these concerns?

Eikenberry: Of course, the questions of the unity of the security forces as you go into the future is one that I know is of concern to the Afghan people. My own view is, though, having first come to your country in 2002 as a major general with the mission of helping Afghanistan to establish its new Afghan army, and being involved even in those early days with the police, as I look at the caliber of your forces and I look at the leadership of the institutions, it’s strong.

Now, it’s clear that at the end of the day the army and the police of any country, they respond to political leadership. So behind the army and the police, political unity, political coherence, political will is needed to control the army and the police.

Eikenberry had his share of tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai (right) during his tenure as U.S. ambassador.

RFE/RL: But the political structure has a lot of problems. There are internal splits. Even the two vice presidents don’t really agree with the president. It's the same with the ministers, the same with the parliament and other branches of power. So if this is the structure of politics behind the army and there is no consensus on who the enemy is, how will they fight against terrorism in Afghanistan - [be it] the Taliban or any other group?

Eikenberry: Having served in your country many years, I still am confident that what unites all Afghans is a sense of nationalism. Also an awareness of the price that Afghanistan will pay should they lose the support of the international community, and the loss of support might come, then, with disunity. It’s also important in the coming years that more effort is put into the building of political institutions and government institutions by the leaders of Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Can you tell us the main reasons for the recent tensions and problems between you and President Hamid Karzai?

Eikenberry: Even from the time I first came here in 2002, have there been differences of opinion, differences of views about what policies we should adopt in order to achieve our common goals? Sure, there have been. There have been moments of frustration, I know, for President Karzai. There's been moments of frustration for the United States of America.

This is never going to be easy work. We have to have a relationship where we can be, behind closed doors, candid with each other. But when the door opens up, we also have to have a relationship where we reassure our people [that] even with our differences we are still fighting hard to get to those common goals and objectives.

RFE/RL: There is a sense among many Afghans that the American government and the Afghan government were not able over the past 10 or 11 years to share a common view on politics, on the presence of NATO forces. On many different issues, they were not able to speak in a friendly or frank manner. Is that correct?

Eikenberry: We are going to continue, as we go forward over the next several years, to have difficult discussions between the government of Afghanistan and the government of the United States. There is no way to avoid that. The Afghan people, they increasingly want sovereignty. They want their government and their security forces to be in charge. We wish to do that as well.

Trying to achieve that, though, the pace that we do this at, the exact agreements that we reach, say for the conduct of our own military forces in your country -- that will lead to differences, those will lead to tough talks. There’s nothing wrong with having tough talks between good friends. We’re going to continue to have those.

RFE/RL: Another concern is about Iran and Iranian interference in Afghanistan. The U.S. and British military have evidence of interference but no pressure is being put on Tehran. The Afghan government maintains its relations with the Iranian government. The Afghan authorities even listen to Iranian officials making speeches against our allies in the country and the Afghan government never makes a comment. What will the allies’ strategy be in the future if Iran continues its activities?

Iran is providing a degree of support for some elements of the Taliban. This is absolutely clear. It’s up to [the Afghan] government to make its own decisions, of course, on what kind of diplomacy, what kind of relations, it [wishes] to have with all of your neighbors.

We believe that the United States of America, first and foremost, remains a very good friend of Afghanistan, and what’s important to us is that we have a good bilateral relationship with Kabul.

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