Finding 'new equilibrium' of support in Afghanistan crucial to war's success
The Pittsburgh (Pa.) Tribune-Review
The United States must “find a new equilibrium” as combat forces exit Afghanistan, or America risks forfeiting its longest war, the former ambassador to that country said on Friday.
“We can't keep pouring money into the country. However, if we don't maintain the appropriate level of support past (the troop pullout in) 2014, my concern is this whole enterprise will be lost,” along with a trillion dollars America spent, former U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry told Tribune-Review editors and reporters.
Foreign investment and assistance account for 80 percent of Afghanistan's legal economy, and its security forces — 300,000 people in a country of 30 million — would “disintegrate” without financial and material support from America, said Eikenberry, who served two tours as an Army general in Afghanistan before serving as ambassador from May 2009 to July 2011.
That support will dwindle as the United States brings an end to 12 years of war — just as Afghans go to the polls in the first political transition since 2004. The country's constitution bars President Hamid Karzai from running for a third five-year term next year, and no candidate has emerged with enough widespread support to make him an obvious front-runner in the April 5 election, Eikenberry said.
Whether the international community can find equilibrium between withdrawing troops and maintaining enough stability to conduct a legitimate election will determine the fate of this war, Eikenberry said.
“If it's looked at by the people as illegitimate, I think this could be catastrophic for the U.S. mission post-Taliban,” he said.
Eikenberry, a Stanford fellow in international security who is in Pittsburgh to speak at Carnegie Mellon University, said the ethnic and geographic divisions that fueled Afghanistan's civil war in the 1990s remain. No “pan-Afghan political party” has shown an ability to draw support across those divisions, he said.
The last group to come close was the Taliban, the radical Islamists who offered war-weary Afghans security and justice, then consolidated their rule into a brutal theocracy. Taliban leaders, deposed in the 2001 invasion, maintain safe haven in neighboring Pakistan's lawless tribal areas, which weakens the position of U.S. and Afghan officials in their negotiations with the group.
“If you can eliminate the problem of the Taliban, if you can end the conflict politically, that has huge dividends. However, trying to get that agreement with the Taliban has confounded Afghan efforts and our own efforts now for some 12 years,” Eikenberry said.
The long war — and the fact that its fate still rests on a knife's edge — weigh heavily on American foreign policy elsewhere in the world, Eikenberry said.
“The standard that the American people are setting for military interventions is much higher than it would have been 15 years ago. Perhaps we saw that played out in the debate over Syria,” he said
Demoralized by the staggering complexity of America's recent foreign interventions, some are less willing to commit to action overseas.
“Most of U.S. public opinion in the street is based upon emotion, based upon war weariness, based upon ... our Iraq experience where we went in and we didn't find weapons of mass destruction,” said David Wirt, 59, of Bowling Green, a parent of two CMU students who attended Eikenberry's speech on the lessons on Afghanistan. “He mentioned four or five unexpected consequences (of the 2001 invasion). Obviously the Syrian situation is just rife with those.”
The United Nations Security Council appeared ready on Friday to approve a resolution ordering Syrian President Bashar Assad to turn over his chemical weapons. The resolution could give President Obama a way to save face when he failed to follow through on his threat of military action in Syria — a move broadly unpopular with a public that elected him in part to end U.S. wars overseas.
“Did we get there by design? We'll let people debate that later. We had an expression in our embassy in Kabul that if we're going to get this mission done, we're going to have to be very skilled and lucky,” Eikenberry said.
“I'd always tell our team, ‘We are very skilled. So we're going to have to be lucky.' ”