The Meaning of the Eikenberry Cables

It is inconceivable that a president acting on a candid estimate of the commitment he was requiring of his country, would, in response to the Eikenberry cables, bow to the generals and increase troop levels in Afghanistan.
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The New York Times performed a service today by publishing the text of two cables sent in November 2009 to Secretary of State Clinton, by the American ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl W. Eikenberry.

The Times story by Eric Schmitt is fairly done, and gives an adequate summary of the documents; but the small headline and the left-column treatment allow a reader to underestimate the historical importance of the cables and the startling impression they make when read in full. It is as if we had been offered a long look at several pages of the most disturbing prognosis in the Pentagon Papers; as if we could see the president reading them with us, and then deciding in spite of everything to go ahead with the war.

The Eikenberry cables were timed to influence the latter part of President Obama's reappraisal of the American military role in Afghanistan. They may have meant to serve as a counterweight, also, against the schedule of troop requests which Bob Woodward had published seven weeks earlier in the Washington Post. That earlier leak by the military had clearly been executed by someone close to Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal.

No American in a position of authority knows more about Afghanistan than Ambassador Eikenberry. If there is a contender, it might be Matthew Hoh, who on September 10, 2009, two months before Eikenberry sent the first of his cables, resigned from the foreign service, giving up his position as senior U.S. Civilian Representative in Zabul province. Hoh offered as his reason, above all, "doubts about our current strategy and planned future strategy." But he also confessed his suspicion that no sanely imaginable result could justify the scale of the American investment in the war: "I fail to see the value or the worth in continued U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war." Both the tenor and the details of the Eikenberry cables lend support to the logic of Hoh's letter of resignation.

Before becoming ambassador, Karl Eikenberry was the senior American commander in Afghanistan. To say that he knows that country better than Petraeus and McChrystal do -- from a military and a civilian perspective -- is only to say what Petraeus and McChrystal themselves have acknowledged.

The first cable is dated November 6, 2009. It takes an unequivocal stand against any increase of American forces at the present time:

The proposed troop increase will bring vastly increased costs and an indefinite, large-scale U.S. military role in Afghanistan, generating the need for yet-more civilians. An increased U.S. and foreign role in security and governance will increase Afghan dependency, at least in the near-term, and it will deepen the military involvement in a mission that most agree cannot be won solely by military means. Further, it will run counter to our strategic purposes of Afghanizing and civilianizing government functions here.

Note that Eikenberry assumes the American purpose must be something other than an indefinite prolongation of the war. Yet that is the only end that is sure to be served by the troop increase.

In the same cable of November 6, he observes, of the visual aids supplied by the generals: "None of these charts displays dollar costs." Those costs, says Eikenberry, will be "astronomical."

Hamid Karzai, the leader of Afghanistan, is not (in Eikenberry's considered view) "an adequate strategic partner." Indeed the posture of Karzai is worse than inadequate:

He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending "war on terror" and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.

It is remarkable that Eikenberry does not challenge the accuracy of this assumption by the Karzai circle: namely that American plans encompass the building of large bases and the semi-permanent use of Afghanistan for the conduct of wars elsewhere. He must have regarded the assumption as, at least, common sense from their point of view; and he brings it up only to point out that it encourages a feckless dependency among the ruling caste of warlords in Afghanistan.

The November 6 cable goes on to observe the undesired effect that American escalation is sure to have on Afghan independence in the fighting. "Expanding assistance, either military or civilian," Eikenberry says, "will increase Afghan dependence and make more remote the day when we can transfer most sovereign responsibilities to the Afghans and draw down our presence." A similar observation was ventured, some 45 years ago, by those government officials who opposed American support for the American puppets in Vietnam, from Diem to Ky to Thieu. It seems likely that Eikenberry was acquainted with that history. As for civilian engagement, he notes, a "trained and honest" cadre of Afghan civilian officials "does not now exist and would take years to build."

Two conclusions stand out in the cable of November 6. "More troops won't end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain." And: "We have little clarity about how long it will be before cleared districts are connected to an Afghan government that both functions in Kabul and reaches down to the local level."

Ambassador Eikenberry's second cable is dated November 9. It has the form of a postscript to what he must have known was already a definitive expression of his doubts:

Some argue that we must decide on the full-up troop deployment now. I disagree. . . .We have the time we need certainly into early next year. We must take that time to decide on the right course. . . .[The additional troops] would be arriving in increments, in any case.

Thus, contrary to the public testimony of Petraeus and McChrystal, the military status of the war was not desperate or even alarming. But what did Eikenberry think could be done in the time the American government had to make its decision? "We have not yet conducted," he tells the secretary of state, "a comprehensive, interdisciplinary analysis of all our strategic options."

The sort of analysis Eikenberry suggests would be overseen by eminent political figures of both parties and former government and congressional leaders, as well as persons of some expertise on the history and politics of Afghanistan. Among the options these people should study, which have not been studied yet, says Eikenberry, is a search for a reconciliation with insurgents (he does not call them "Taliban"). The end in view is not instruction in democracy, or the remaking of a whole society, but simply "taking them off the battlefield."

What was Barack Obama's response to these extraordinary cables? He sought to satisfy a minimum of the concerns laid down by Eikenberry, while acting against their broad admonition in the largest particulars by adding 30,000 troops. Obama, in short, rated above Eikenberry the expertise of David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal and the editorial pages of the Washington Post and the New York Times. The main thing he granted to Eikenberry was an escalation of the air attacks in Pakistan, to go along with the increase in American troops in Afghanistan which Eikenberry had advised against. A second major desideratum of the November cables, the search for reconciliation with the Afghan insurgents, he delegated to Robert Gates.

It was apparent as early as the summer of 2009 that Obama had no political choice but to throw in his lot with Petraeus and McChrystal and the "full-up" commitment of troops. Only a more far-sighted regard for prudence could have drawn him the other way.

And, in fact, Obama went in even faster than the generals asked him to; and he did so, we now can see, in open disregard of the practical wisdom of the Eikenberry cables. He did it on the supposition that the sooner he went in big, the sooner he could get out big. In a flattering article by Peter Baker on the "process" of the troop decision, President Obama was quoted as saying, of a left-to-right time chart of contemplated troop deployments: "I want this pushed to the left." That is, move them in faster. Make the whole thing fast so we can have a credible ending by 2011. But Ambassador Eikenberry had already told him why "pushing" the graph in this way was a fantasy -- a case of wishful thinking to the point of irresponsibility.

It is inconceivable that a president acting on a candid estimate of the commitment he was requiring of his country, would, in response to the Eikenberry cables, finally have bowed to the generals. No one could have done so whose guiding light was prudence and the direction of a wise policy. What drove this decision, instead, was Barack Obama's desire for an appearance of conventional solidity. He had said so many times that Afghanistan was the right war. How could he unsay it?

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