Someone who has been there
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 16, 2011 1:50 AM
News-Argus/MICHAEL K. DAKOTA
Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry spoke to a full house at the Wayne County Arts Council Saturday evening. Eikenberry, a Goldsboro High School graduate, took questions from the audience before signing autographs. Phil Kemp gets an autographed bookmark at the conclusion of the evening.
Walking the halls inside Goldsboro High School took Karl Eikenberry back more than 40 years -- to his victorious campaign for a post in the school's student government, to boyhood friends and mentors.
But in an instant, the retired Army lieutenant general turned his thoughts back to the present -- to the country that has consumed his life since a presidential appointment landed him in the middle of a war zone, to the prospect of a world without terrorism.
The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan returned to the city he will always consider home this weekend to participate in an event meant, in part, to honor him.
But for a few moments Friday, he spoke about the future of the country he left less than a week earlier -- about both the progress he has seen its people and government make since he moved there in 2009 and the tremendous work still left to be done before America and its allies can turn it back over to its natives.
"When we went into Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002, we had really underestimated the challenges we would be facing there," Eikenberry said. "We underestimated the challenges that we had in terms of just the trauma that the society of Afghanistan had experienced over three decades of war and that trauma leading to two generations of Afghans without education. We had underestimated the challenges that would be posed by the lack of physical infrastructure in the country. We underestimated the challenges that would be posed by the enemy sanctuary existing in Pakistan.
"And it's really not until early 2009 when President Obama takes office that we had not only a strategy, but he committed the resources that we would need to execute the strategy. We always had a strategy in Afghanistan, but we never had the inputs to properly execute the strategy."
Obama's commitment of more troops -- 20,000 when he first took office and another 30,000 in late 2009 -- a civilian force and funds for developmental assistance, though, changed the course of the war, the ambassador added.
"It's not only numbers, but it's the way we organize our effort. It's the doctrine that we use. All of that now has us in a position where we have more confidence that we're making progress," Eikenberry said. "So the progress that we've seen, in the last two years ... it's real. We're seeing steady progress in the security front. We're starting to see the outlines of more success in governance.
"But as the president concluded in the annual review of our overall Afghanistan/Pakistan strategy that (he) directed us to conduct this past December, the conclusion was that there is progress being made, but it's still fragile and reversible."
And a key factor that led to that conclusion, the general added, is Pakistan.
"The lessons learned from insurgencies throughout history is that it's very difficult to defeat an insurgency if that insurgency benefits from sanctuary. And this insurgency inside Afghanistan benefits from sanctuary inside of Pakistan," Eikenberry said. "The most (serious) terrorist threat resides inside of Pakistan, not Afghanistan. We still have to recall, though, that the attack upon the United States that culminated on 9/11, that attack was planned inside Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda had open sanctuary and they had permission to use Afghanistan from the Taliban regime.
"So we have to harden the state of Afghanistan so that it doesn't return to the way it was pre-9/11 where the Taliban extremist regime invited al-Qaeda to come in and set up shop to attack us. But at the same time, we're very clear that the engine of this insurgency and indeed the engine of international terrorism, it by and large resides on the Pakistani side of the border. So we do what we can right now to attack that sanctuary. We work with the Pakistanis in terms of collaborative programs of intelligence and military programs to try to attack the sanctuary, but the sanctuary still exists. The sanctuary is still lethal. And the Pakistanis have to address it."
Just as the Afghan government must address the continued need to strengthen itself and its military to ensure Afghanistan is never again a sanctuary itself.
"We help to strengthen Afghanistan -- to develop its Security Forces, to harden its government and help the government connect to the people and provide justice and good services to the people -- to get the state hard enough so that terrorism can't take up residence again in Afghanistan," Eikenberry said. "But can we succeed in Afghanistan without addressing the sanctuary inside of Pakistan? Well, let me say this. Perhaps, but it will take a lot longer. It will take more treasure. It will take more lives. So we're very clear about the sanctuary, and we focus on it."
Moments before Eikenberry stood in front of the hundreds who gathered at his former high school for the 39th annual George Whitfield Hall of Fame induction ceremony, he talked about how the Afghan people would likely also enjoy the opportunity to gather with family and friends for an evening of fellowship.
And he spoke about how the vast majority of the people who make up the country he, for the time being, calls home, are not so different than those he was welcomed by Friday.
"I live in Afghanistan with my wife. We travel around the country. I have been to all 34 provinces within the country. ... I know the people, from the farmer to President Karzai. And I will tell you that the Afghan people, they have different culture, they have a different history, they have a different geography, they have a different religion than many Americans do, but against all of that, to a degree that many people here in Wayne County would find extraordinary, they have the same hopes and dreams and values that we have here," he said. "What do they want? They want justice. They want their children to have a better opportunity to get an education, to have a good life. They are hard working people. They are very family-oriented. They are very grateful people.
"So this kind of militant, terrorist, extremist ideology is not Islam. It's not Islam and it's not Afghan either. The Afghans, through the many centuries, have practiced a very moderate form of Islam and the terrorists over the last 20 years hijacked their religion from them in certain places. So don't associate terrorism with the Afghan people. ... They are with us."
So when he travels back to that wartorn country shortly after his stint in Wayne County is complete, he will welcome the opportunity to continue his work.
Even if, as he put it Friday, it will take years to accomplish the goal the U.S. set forth nearly a decade ago.
"The president has been clear and our strategy is one now where this July, we will see the maximum level of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and then, depending on the security conditions on the ground, in consultations with the Afghans, we will begin to withdrawal those forces," Eikenberry said. "Then, at the end of 2014, the Afghans will take full responsibility for leading security operations and police operations throughout their country. So we have a very clear objective that we're trying to achieve. Can they do this? We're pretty confident that they can. It's realistic, but hard work has to be done.
"The Afghan people, look, it's been nine years since the international community arrived in Afghanistan. They are grateful to us. They say that this is the first time in their long history that they've ever had forces come from outside of Afghanistan and been greeted as liberators. It's always been conquerors that have come -- occupiers. ... So we're still quite popular with the Afghan people. But the Afghan people, they want to take the lead. They want to take control of their own destiny. So they are stepping up more and more and I think they are looking forward to that day when they are fully in charge."