What Obama's security team shakeup could mean for Afghanistan

The loss of America’s top three military and diplomatic leaders at once worries Afghans. But some see the potential for a fresh start with President Karzai.

S. Sabawoon/AP
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, third from left, talks with Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, as Karl Eikenberry, second left, US ambassador to Kabul and US General David Petraeus, the top commander of NATO-led troops in Afghanistan look on, during their meeting in Kabul on March 7.

A major exodus of top US leadership in Afghanistan has some Afghans nervous about the sudden loss of American expertise in the region. But others express hope for a fresh start in the strained relationship between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and US envoys.

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, top military commander Gen. David Petraeus (expected to be tapped to run the CIA), and his deputy, Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez are all reported to be moving on from their current positions shortly. Between them, they have a combined 10 years of experience based on Afghan soil. This follows the recent passing of US special envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke in December.

Afghanistan is a complicated place, with tribal feuds, international intrigues, and decentralized bands of insurgents. The loss of America’s top three military and diplomatic leaders at once – especially ones so experienced – worries Afghans about the time lost in the transition.

“Rapid personnel changes bring more insecurity to the people of Afghanistan,” says Fawzia Kofi, a member of Afghanistan’s Parliament. “It sends a signal of disinterest in Afghanistan, and the individuals take institutional memory with them.”

Ambassador Eikenberry, in particular, “knows from A to Z” the country’s political character, says Ms. Kofi. He has spent about 4-1/2 years in the country, first building the Afghan National Army, then leading the NATO mission, and finally serving as the US ambassador.

Eikenberry is rumored to leave shortly, as the usual two-year tenure for an ambassador concludes, with former US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker reported to be his likely replacement, according to AP.

“People seem to think that Eikenberry is a very active ambassador, he is connected to the people, he talks on behalf of our nation on issues of corruption,” says Kofi. “In the absence of strong leaders, he comes forward and talks about these issues – which doesn’t make the palace happy.”

Leaked diplomatic cables revealed Eikenberry’s deep reservations about Karzai’s leadership over a corrupt and ineffective government. The frankness of the internal memos only deepened a chill in relations between the Obama and Karzai teams.

“The leaving of Ambassador Eikenberry could signal a positive step for Afghanistan, only because his relationship with President Karzai had reached a point that it had become unproductive,” says Mariam Safi, head researcher at the Center for Conflict and Peace Studies in Kabul. “It would be great to get a new ambassador here with a fresh perspective who would be able to communicate with Karzai.”

Newbies duty to implement drawdown

It will be up to the newcomers to implement much of the policy hammered out by these three men.

On the one hand, that policy gives a clear roadmap to their successors. In July 2011, NATO will begin a small drawdown of forces in selected districts. Reductions of forces will then continue until primary responsibility for security is handed over to the Afghans in 2014. In the meantime, the US and Afghan governments are trying to bring the Taliban into peace negotiations.

But few think the policy is so fixed that the personalities of the newcomers won’t matter.

The pace of security handovers to Afghan units remains to be determined. The Taliban talks have yet to get off the ground. And the contentious issue of a longer-term US presence threatens to upend the trust needed to pull off any of this.

“The policies are designed, but those who will implement these policies and strategies are one of the major parts of a successful mission,” says Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. In general, he says, the architects of the US strategy “should remain to complete their jobs.”

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