WikiLeaks fallout reveals more cracks in Afghan war strategy

The continued political survival of US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry suggests the doubts he expressed about the war strategy have deepened in American government circles.

Allauddin Khan/AP
Gen. David Petraeus (l.) the top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and US Ambassador Karl Eikenberry listen to Afghan President Hamid Karzai (not pictured) as he talks to Afghans in Argandab district of Kandahar province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Oct. 9.

The latest WikiLeaks revelations once again put the US ambassador to Afghanistan on record as a blunt critic of President Hamid Karzai’s government, highlighting the war’s corrupt and complicated dynamics.

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry's name sits as a signature at the end of an October 2009 cable marked “confidential” that concluded, “one of our major challenges in Afghanistan [is] how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt.”

The memo also repeats allegations that Mr. Karzai’s half brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, “is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker.”

Together with past leaked documents and Bob Woodward’s new book “Obama’s Wars,” the cables cement Ambassador Eikenberry as one of Karzai’s toughest critics and a skeptic of the war from inside the highest leadership circles. Eikenberry’s continued political survival suggests that doubts about the war strategy have deepened in American government circles.

“I don’t really get the sense that Eikenberry is far off from many people in the government about the nature of the problem,” says Christine Fair, a South Asia expert at Georgetown University. “I believe senior Democrats in the Congress really get this and don’t really understand why we are there. And Obama is sensitive to the prerogatives of his base.”

Before President Obama appointed him ambassador, Eikenberry served as military commander in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 as a three-star general.

During the Obama administration’s 2009 debate on the prospect of escalating troop numbers in Afghanistan, Eikenberry argued against Gen. David Petraeus and other generals, who wanted to launch a full-scale counterinsurgency. His primary rationale: Karzai wasn’t helping win popular support for the Afghan government.

“Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance, or development,” wrote Eikenberry in a pair of November 2009 cables that leaked in January.

Further tough talk from the general-turned-diplomat emerged in Mr. Woodward’s new book. “I would challenge that assumption” that Washington and Kabul are aligned, Eikenberry is reported to have argued in the war deliberations. “Right now we’re dealing with an extraordinarily corrupt government.”

More negative comments could be coming. WikiLeaks has only posted a few hundred of some 250,000 documents; a few newspaper partners have seen the whole cache. One of the cables not yet posted by WikiLeaks calls Karzai “an extremely weak man who did not listen to facts,” according to the Guardian newspaper.

While Eikenberry’s name appears at the end of the October cable in capital letters as an electronic signature, standard diplomatic practices mean it’s possible he never read it. It's general practice for the ambassador of an embassy to have their name at the bottom of e-mail cables, though it doesn't necessarily mean they have read the cable.

On the latest document dump from WikiLeaks, Eikenberry issued a statement saying: “It is important to be clear that diplomatic personnel’s internal reports do not represent a government’s final determination of official foreign policy. In the United States, they are just one of many elements that shape our policies, which are ultimately set by the President and the Secretary of State.”

Mr. Obama eventually decided to escalate the war with 30,000 additional troops, but shied away from calling the mission a counterinsurgency. However, current strategy includes trying to get popular support for the Afghan government – an effort hampered by the government’s corruption and weak capacity.

US embassy pressure on Karzai to clean up has yielded scant results, say analysts. And some question if Eikenberry’s now-public criticisms have become too big a barrier for cooperation from Kabul.

“I think it makes it very, very difficult,” says a former senior US official. But the situation is not easily remedied: “Are you rewarding the Afghan government because this information leaked, if you remove the man?” he says.

Ms. Fair of Georgetown sees little value in diplomatic nicety at this stage in the conflict.

“I don’t know how you have a working relationship with Karzai after everything he’s done as well,” says Fair. “Eikenberry is basically speaking the fundamental truth that we can’t really win this without a credible partner. And I think, quite frankly, that’s something that really needs to be communicated – not just to the Afghan partner, but to the American people.”

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