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Meet General-Turned-Ambassador Karl Eikenberry

The New York Times reports that Karl Eikenberry, the commanding general of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, is President Obama’s choice to become ambassador to Afghanistan. It’s an interesting choice: Eikenberry has two tours in Afghanistan to his name, so on the one hand he’s seen the sweep of the war as few Americans have; but on the other hand, during his last tour, security in Afghanistan decreased dramatically. To Eikenberry’s credit, his emphasis has consistently been on building up Afghan governance and security institutions — see this 2005 press briefing — but the results haven’t exactly inspired confidence. And in this interview with the Asia Society in 2006, he appears to downplay the insurgency’s resilience and capabilities:

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.

Perhaps, but that enemy has increasingly expanded its hold around the country, operating by one estimate in 72 percent of it. Maybe the institutions of the state are still weak and the insurgency is fairly strong.

One issue The Times raises is that Eikenberry’s unusual appointment — you don’t often see a general take off his uniform and immediately put on a diplomat’s striped suit — may suggest an overly militarized approach to Afghanistan during the Obama administration. Maybe. But most of Eikenberry’s experience in Afghanistan demonstrates him talking repeatedly about the need to build up Afghanistan’s security forces and governance capacity as the wiser long-term strategy. That’s in line with what Defense Secretary Bob Gates outlined to the Senate earlier this week. National Security Adviser Jim Jones — a retired Marine general — Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus and Gen. David McKiernan, Eikenberry’s successor as U.S./NATO commander on the ground, have all sounded similar notes as well. So while there may be an increased focus on security — and certainly McKiernan wants up to 30,000 more U.S. troops, with Gates’ support — you also have a team that has expressed wariness about Americanizing the war.

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