Back home again: Former ambassador Eikenberry and wife, Ching, look back at Afghanistan
By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on August 7, 2011 12:24 AM
Karl and Ching Eikenberry share memories of their days in Afghanistan.
RALEIGH -- It wasn't until they were back in the United States, eating at Courtney's Restaurant in Raleigh, that Karl and Ching Eikenberry realized just how stressful their lives in Afghanistan had been.
But after two years of hearing and dealing with bombings and fire fights in Kabul, and even the occasional earthquake, it wasn't particularly surprising when the Eikenberrys both jumped when a child in a neighboring booth began loudly pounding the table.
"You really don't realize it while you're there," Eikenberry said, speaking at his sister's house in Raleigh. "When you come home and get in the nice, quiet environment that is the U.S., then you realize you've been under a degree of stress."
Eikenberry, a retired Army lieutenant general, stepped down from his post as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan last month after an, at times, tumultuous two years. However, he said, despite the controversy that sometimes seems to be the central storyline of his time in the country, he left pleased with what he and the United States accomplished.
Eikenberry views his history with Afghanistan, which began unexpectedly after Sept. 11, 2001, as having three distinct periods, each corresponding with his three different roles there.
The first, from 2002 to 2003 as both U.S. security coordinator for Afghanistan and chief of the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan, was to help build the country's police and military forces -- a role, he said, that earned him the unofficial title of "Father of the Afghan National Army." It was, he said, an opportunity to help begin bringing the country up from its ashes after the U.S.-led overthrow of the Taliban government.
The second, from 2005 into 2007, was as commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan. During that time, he said, he feels he played an important role helping to create a foundation for the country to begin standing on.
And in the third, from May 11, 2009, until July 19, as ambassador, Eikenberry said he feels he played a role helping to set the stage and the conditions for a transfer of power and responsibility to the Afghans for their own country -- a role that put him at the forefront of the civilian surge into the country.
"As the military surged (in 2009), if they looked over their shoulder, there were civilians right behind them, trying to help the Afghans establish the government necessary to take control of areas that had just been liberated from the Taliban," he said.
When he arrived in Afghanistan, he said, there were 320 U.S. government-paid civilians on the ground. When he left last month, there were 1,200 working in 18 departments, including the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others, and each of them not only had to be recruited and trained, but also prepared for logistically in terms of security, housing and other considerations.
"I'm proud to say I was able to oversee the civilian surge," Eikenberry said. "We accomplished a lot on the civilian side."
And now, he said, the Afghan people are in position to take control of their own destiny.
"I think we did something remarkable in Afghanistan," Eikenberry said. "Only the Americans could go to a place as far away as Afghanistan and accomplish what we accomplished over the last 10 years.
"In many ways, Afghanistan has never enjoyed such success -- ever."
When the U.S.-led forces entered Afghanistan, he said, only 1 million boys were in school, many of whom were attending institutions teaching a militant form of Islam. Today, there are more than 7 million boys and girls attending school. Similarly, he said, 60 percent of people are now only two hours away from access to basic health care. And, whereas there was no national army nine years ago, "just marauding bands of militias," there is now an Afghan army that is gaining respect.
But, as President Barack Obama begins to plan the drawdown of forces from the country, Eikenberry says he agrees it's time for the Afghans to begin filling that void themselves.
He gives an example of a soldier he and his wife visited at Walter Reed about two weeks ago -- a private first class from Brooklyn, N.Y., who lost both legs above the knee and his left arm above the elbow. Eikenberry said he asked the private, who had been serving in the Arghandab Valley in the Kandahar Province, how he thought things were going. He said the soldier said they had improved security, helped build up the police and the army, helped build schools, health clinics and even a road.
But then, Eikenberry said, "He said there's not much more we can do, that now it's up to the Afghans to take charge."
And, Eikenberry said, he agrees.
"What we've done is help shape the foundation for the Afghans, upon which they can build. We've reached the point its going to be increasingly up to the Afghans to go forward," he said. "We should have no regrets for what we've done in Afghanistan."
Nor does Eikenberry have any regrets as to how he handled the furor that ensued when two diplomatic cables to Obama, in which he voiced concerns about risks of sending in additional troops and Afghan President Hamid Karzai's ability to be an adequate partner, were leaked in late 2009.
"As I reflect back, no," he said. "Afghanistan is a very complicated war. Fighting an insurgency is inherently difficult," he said. "As the U.S. ambassador, I found my first priority was that I would report with integrity. As chief of mission, it's important to continue to be positive and to try to inspire and direct our people to do the very best they can with the resources available to implement the agreed-on strategy, but it's also important to continue at all times to report with integrity.
"My father told me in the last years of his life, 'Karl, you have done some difficult things in the course of your career. The best advice I can give you is to do the best you can, and the most important thing is at the end of the day, when you look yourself in the mirror, what do you see -- and that's what matters. I've tried to live by that maxim and follow that advice."
And at the time, he said, the information and the opinions he offered in those cables reflected his and his advisers' best interpretations of the facts on the ground -- even if it did make life a little harder in the short run.
"At the moment, yes," he said. "But with a long-term perspective, did that make things more difficult for me? No, because what I wrote reflected my best judgment. I have no regrets."
Rather, he explained, his biggest concern was the fact that there had been a breach of diplomatic security -- one that could have compromised the integrity with which information is shared and reports are made. And so in that sense, he said, "the leaked cables were regrettable for the U.S. government."
But while he acknowledged a measure of frustration that the cable issue seems to be such a central storyline to his diplomatic career, he doesn't believe it has overshadowed what was accomplished.
And so he chooses to define his tenure differently.
His first accomplishment, he said, was leading the successful civilian surge.
"I think we accomplished what the president wanted us to," he said.
The second, he said, was promoting American diplomacy around Afghanistan by being visible in all 34 provinces, and by talking to and working with Afghans of all levels.
"I think we showed a degree of commitment to the mission that helped their confidence in us, and perhaps also allowed them to believe more in themselves," he said.
And three, he said, he's "proud of the integrity in our reporting as we saw it on the ground."
And as an aside, he credited his English teachers at Goldsboro High School with helping him write those reports.
"When you're writing something the secretary of state and the president are going to read, you don't want any typos. But the English teachers I had at Goldsboro High tortured me enough and prepared me enough for that," he said.
But, Eikenberry said, nothing that he accomplished was done on his own.
In addition to his large civilian team, he said, he had one person whose presence proved invaluable during their two years in the country -- his wife, who said there was never any question as to whether she would accompany him.
"He served in Afghanistan two times as a military commander on the ground, and I couldn't go. But I remember, every time he was home on home leave, when he talked about Afghanistan and what we were accomplishing there, he just had stars in his eyes, and I said, I want to go. I want to see why he has those stars in his eyes," Mrs. Eikenberry said.
However, because the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan is considered a difficult post, she was required to apply and be hired for one of the many civilian jobs available at the embassy under the State Department's Eligible Family Member program -- and because of her 12 years of journalism experience she was hired in the USAID press office.
But, Eikenberry said, that was just her day job. As wife of the ambassador, she also had a night job.
He explained that her presence not only helped provide a measure of normalcy into the embassy community, but also gave those employees there somebody to bring comments and concerns to other than him.
She also, he said, had the "unspoken title" of the female ambassador -- an important role in such a conservative Islamic country.
"I met with Afghan women a lot, but you can understand there were certain barriers that existed," Eikenberry said. "Ching, by way of being a woman, was able to have a dialogue with women in a way that I could not. She did a lot of outreach work, a lot of bridge-building, to Afghan women."
Often, she said, that meant hosting gatherings at the embassy.
But just as often, she said, it meant meeting people where they were, including in their homes as she visited 24 of the 37 provinces -- including several where they came under fire from Taliban forces.
One time in particular, Eikenberry recalled, they were touring a girls' school in the mountainous region of the Nuristan Province, when they began to receive mortar fire -- fire that was soon quieted by a pair of F-15E Strike Eagles under the command of Brig. Gen. Steve Kwast at Bagram Airfield, which came swooping in, firing flares at the militants who were attacking from a nearby village.
They quickly left in order to protect the school, though, Eikenberry said, but he remarked on Mrs. Eikenberry's calm handling of being in such an active war zone.
"Being a journalist helped because of that natural curiosity," she said. "For me, it was more of a life experience than a danger. I wanted to go. I'd lived a pretty content life We have two daughters who are now grown and on their own, so no regrets.
"I like to say Mother China gave me life. Mother America gave me opportunity. This is my small way of giving back to my country."
And so during their travels, she also reached out to the local journalists -- many of them new to the profession -- to help train and encourage them, especially those working in radio, which is the medium through which many Afghan women receive their news while at home during the day.
"We all know you educate the woman, you educate the household," she said.
And while their focus was largely on the civilian population, never did they forget the men and women serving in uniform, visiting them at the bases, at the field hospitals and at Walter Reed when in the United States.
"What we remember the most of sacrifice in Afghanistan were the ramp ceremonies," Eikenberry said.
Those, he explained, were the ceremonies during which the bodies of the Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors who had died were loaded, one by one, into a C-17 to be taken to Dover Air Force Base. The goal, he said, was to have the bodies loaded within 24 hours of death whenever possible, and with more than 900 military deaths during his two years, such ceremonies were held often. Each time, though, if helicopter transport could be arranged quickly enough, the embassy would send anywhere from a dozen to two dozen people to attend.
The Eikenberrys themselves, he said, attended about six -- those occasions when there were the most fatalities.
"Our civilian team looked at it as a real honor to be able to go and pay their respects to their military comrades," he said.
But even when they couldn't attend, Eikenberry made sure those who had sacrificed were not forgotten, opening his weekly Sunday morning staff meetings with a reading of the names of those who had died that week -- and, he said, never was there a week when there weren't names to be read.
Now, however, the Eikenberrys are back in the United States and are preparing to start the next chapter of their lives -- this time at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where Eikenberry, 59, will serve as the Payne Distinguished Lecturer in the Institute for International Studies.
There, where he earned one of two master's degrees, he plans to teach, lecture and write.
"It's time for me to reflect, restore my health and to write," he said. "And I look forward to teaching. There is a lot I feel like I'll be able to impart to the university students."
He is especially excited, he said, about the opportunity to not only reflect on the last 10 years, but also to get back to his roots, which were originally focused on China and the Asia/Pacific region -- a focus that changed with Sept. 11.
He also said he is considering restarting his pursuit of his doctorate.
Mostly, though, after nine years living outside the continental U.S. since 9/11, he is looking forward to being back in a country with a strong and stable political and legal system, despite its current challenges -- and contributing to its national discussion through teaching.
"You leave Afghanistan and come home, and you really appreciate what we have here," he said. "I'm looking forward to enjoying the way of life we have here."
But the best part, he said, is that his daughters and grandchildren are all on the West Coast, one in Seattle and one in Sacramento.