05/03/09 — GHS grad answers new call to serve overseas

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GHS grad answers new call to serve overseas

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 3, 2009 2:00 AM

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courtesy of the U.S. State Department

Newly sworn Ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, seated, signs his appointment papers as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, left, wife Ching Eikenberry and daughter, Jennifer Yu, look on. Eikenberry officially accepted his appointment to the position Wednesday during a ceremony in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON D.C. -- For 24 hours, Karl Eikenberry was unemployed. No longer an Army brigadier general and not yet the newest U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, the former Goldsboro High School football player said he spent that time reflecting.

"The last several months of transition from military to diplomatic life have been very emotional, rewarding and humbling," he said. "That 24 hours was spent, very briefly, reflecting on 36 years of military service, and then after two minutes of reflecting, turned to looking ahead to the challenges awaiting us in Afghanistan."

And on Wednesday, shortly after noon, those challenges once again officially became part of his responsibilities as he took the oath of office from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while standing in the Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department.

But becoming ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan was not a position that Eikenberry necessarily had sought. When asked by President Barack Obama to accept the post, he was serving as the deputy chairman of NATO's Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium -- a position he had held since April 2007.

But, Eikenberry said, the offer was not something he could refuse.

"I am and will always be immensely proud of my military service," he said. "But when the call came from the administration to consider accepting the nomination to the post of ambassador to Afghanistan, there was absolutely no hesitation on my part.

"When the president calls, or asks you to serve, you respond and you serve. Given the importance of Afghanistan and Pakistan to the national security of the United States, there was no question in my mind that I had to accept."

After all, Afghanistan is a place the former three-star general knows something about, having spent two tours of duty there, including one as the commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces from May 2005 to October 2006.

He believes it was that experience that made him stand out as a candidate for the position.

"I believe that given my background and my previous service, that I can contribute as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and that I can make a strong contribution," Eikenberry said. "My understanding of the challenges that we face in the country, and perhaps most important, my familiarity with many of the Afghani leaders is very important."

He explained that building relationships between Afghanis and westerners is not something that's easily done, particularly given barriers of culture, language and religion.

"It's extremely hard to establish trust and confidence and a good working relationship," he said. "The learning curve can be rather steep when you go into a difficult environment, but for me, because of the previous experiences I've had, that learning curve will not be quite as steep."

It also helps, he added, that he has held several political-military assignments, including his time with NATO, as well as a stint as the U.S. defense attachÃ(c) in Beijing. Additionally, he has earned two master's degrees, one in East Asian studies from Harvard and one in political science from Stanford.

All in all, it's because of that background that Sec. Clinton said he was the right man for the job.

Now he is anxious to get started.

In previous statements while serving as a military commander, Eikenberry often referred to the need to focus on and improve Afghanistan's civilian infrastructure, and now he has the opportunity to do so while working closely with the international community, the Afghani government, and other U.S. officials such as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and head of Central Command, Gen. David Petraeus, both in attendance Wednesday.

"We require a great effort in Afghanistan in terms of helping the Afghanis develop more accountable government and further develop their economy, and that's going to require the commitment of more civilian personnel and new types of aid and development programs -- all certainly a part of the president's new strategy," he said. "So yes, I'm very excited and looking forward to the opportunity."

But first, Eikenberry and his wife, Ching, have some loose ends to finish tying up.

Already, he said, she has had their home in Brussels packed and the appropriate pieces of furniture put in storage and the appropriate articles of clothing and other necessities prepared to ship to Kabul, Afghanistan -- the third time in six years she has had to pack a house by herself.

Now, it's just a matter of continuing to meet with senior administration officials and getting the rest of their personal effects in order, such as their finances and medical records -- all while celebrating the end of a successful military career, the beginning of a new civil servant career and, on top of everything else, the Goldsboro High School Class of 1969's 40th reunion Saturday at Walnut Creek Country Club.