08/22/07 — Gen. Karl Eikenberry takes on a new mission

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Gen. Karl Eikenberry takes on a new mission

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on August 22, 2007 1:45 PM

From the battlefields of Afghanistan to the battlefields of Waterloo, Goldsboro native Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry has experienced a fairly dramatic change of scenery during the last year as he's moved from the front of the War on Terror to the inner-workings of NATO in Belgium.

After spending a total of three years and two tours of duty in Afghanistan, the three star general ended his two-year command of U.S. Forces in February. In April, he was named the deputy chairman of NATO's Military Commit-tee in Brussels.

While serving in his new post, he's living with his wife, Ching, in Waterloo, the site of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's infamous defeat.

"It's wonderful to be back together after such a long separation and we enjoy living in Belgium, but my wife accuses me of picking our location so that even though I'm no longer in Afghanistan, I can still be on a battlefield," he said.

This time, though, he's not commanding any forces, and that, he acknowledged, has been quite a change.

"After two tours of duty in Afghanistan, when you leave, I think the same would be true for every soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, CIA operative and State Department officer -- I think they would all say that they leave part of their heart in that country," Eikenberry said. "Part of my heart is in Afghanistan and always will be in that country.

"We have an extremely important and noble mission there."

So naturally it was hard to leave when his second tour was up.

"There is the notion that you're leaving your band of brothers and sisters behind, and you don't want to do that," he said. "There's also a tremendous empathy and sympathy that you rapidly develop for the Afghan people.

"They want to rid themselves of the terrorists and the criminals. They want a good life for themselves and their families. And it's hard to walk away from that."

But he knows that there is a lot left to do and that there was no way it could all be completed under his watch.

"This is not going to be an operation we can neatly wrap up in one year, five years or seven years. This is a long-term campaign that's underway," he said. "To use a football analogy, you can take this thing closer to the goalposts, but on your watch, the best you can hope for is a first down or two. Then another group will take the field and continue to move closer to the goal."

And he believes they will get there.

It is, he said, is NATO's No. 1 mission.

However, he acknowledged that several obstacles still remain.

The first is the country itself -- particularly its varied geography, from the blazing desert to the snowy Hindu Kush Mountains. Additionally, its poor infrastructure, though it is improving, has at times hindered the movements of NATO forces. It was, Eikenberry said, the toughest terrain he has ever had to fight on.

The second challenge is the continued insurgency from Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters and their ability to use Afghanistan's porous borders to their advantage. But, Eikenberry stressed, NATO is winning that military battle with about 40,000 troops committed to the fight, as well as another 10,000 U.S. troops focused on training Afghan forces and counter-terrorism activities.

Currently, the worst of the violence is contained in the southern and the eastern regions of the country, but, he noted, the willingness of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to engage alliance forces has declined since last summer, despite their continued use of terror tactics such as suicide bombers and roadside bombs.

"Tactfully, they remain a dangerous opponent," he acknowledged. "But in the main, they are not a military threat. If they ever amass, they face what we call a very exciting, but brief existence."

Rather, he continued, the toughest challenge that remains is the third -- helping the Afghan people reach the point they are able to begin effectively governing and securing themselves.

In the past, Eikenberry has said that where the Afghan government is able to gain a foothold, it has remained and continued to grow strong.

"It's not that the enemy anywhere is that strong," he said last year, while still commanding U.S. forces. "It's that the government and security forces are still weak. There hasn't been anywhere in Afghanistan where there's been a strong government presence that the enemy has pushed it away."

And while the same holds true today, Eikenberry said Tuesday, the alliance and its partners are faced with an increasing need to not only continue to engage the insurgents, but also to increase their efforts to help provide the tools of good governance and civil society.

Among those needs are strong judicial processes and reliable infrastructure such as roads, schools and water systems. And while Afghanistan does have a democratically elected parliament, a president with a 65 percent approval rating, an improving military and police force and a rapidly growing education system, especially for women, there is still a long way to go.

"There have been some tremendous successes in Afghanistan. Against the baseline, there have been some great improvements," Eikenberry said. "Militarily and with security in Afghanistan, we continue to make steady progress, as hard as it is.

"But more effort needs to be put into the areas of establishing good governance and systems of justice. There is much more to establishing good democratic governance than simply holding elections.

"What's important in the long-term is that Afghan government and security forces begin to win their (people's) hearts and minds."