U.S. ambassador takes Karzai to the woodshed

KABUL, Afghanistan — It is always liberating to be on your way out of a job. Tongues can be loosened, political niceties discarded, and at last you can give vent to all of those nasty emotions you have been holding in for so long.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has done his farewell tour criticizing all and sundry, irritating NATO and publicly disagreeing with the administration on a number of policy issues.

Now it’s the turn of Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. envoy to Kabul.

Giving a speech to a group of students and academics at Herat University on Sunday, he swung back at the Afghan president for remarks the latter had made the day before.

Karzai, in a short televised speech to a Youth Council, on Saturday, had blown the U.S. cover on negotiations with the Taliban, accused the United States of polluting his country with their weapons, reiterated his theory that NATO was in Afghanistan, not to help, but for its own nefarious purposes and, in a somewhat childish fit of pique, insisted that he would no longer thank the international forces for their presence.

In comparison, Eikenberry’s response was a model of restraint. He limited himself to calling the remarks “hurtful and inappropriate,” while refusing even to mention Karzai by name.

But there was a hint of steel in his barely disguised threat to pull out the troops if the criticism continued.

“When we hear ourselves being called occupiers and worse, our pride is offended and we begin to lose our inspiration to carry on,” he said. “At the point your leaders believe that we are doing more harm than good, when we reach a point that we feel our soldiers and civilians are being asked to sacrifice without a just cause, and our generous aid programs dismissed as totally ineffective and the source of all corruption … especially at a time our economy is suffering and our needs are not being met, the American people will ask for our forces to come home.”

Few diplomats have more street cred in Afghanistan than Eikenberry, who served two tours here as a general before changing to civvies for his State Department gig.

Eikenberry has been such an active ambassador that few may remember that his major legacy in Afghanistan will doubtless spring from his time as the Commander of the Joint Forces in Afghanistan — a predecessor to the seemingly all-powerful David Petraeus, who has held the job for less than a year and is credited with changing the course of the war.

The military has always been at the forefront of this conflict, all but overshadowing the diplomatic effort.

Even when Zalmay Khalilzad guided the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, from 2003 to 2005, few doubted that his State Department position was little more than window dressing. Khalilzad was a star of the neocons, who included Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and other Defense Department luminaries.

As ambassador, Khalilzad was known as the “viceroy,” and was virtually running the country through the Afghan president he had handpicked at the Bonn conference — Hamid Karzai. But he had an able assistant in Eikenberry, who arrived in 2005, a few months before Khalilzad was to leave for Baghdad.

The U.S. ambassador needed a safe pair of hands to hand off his power to, and the incoming ambassador, Ronald Neumann, did not fit the bill. Neuman, a career State Department diplomat, apparently had more hands-off approach to dealing with the Afghan president, and he soon found himself out in the cold.

Khalilzad’s considerable shoes were then filled by the U.S. general.

“Khalilzad and Eikenberry visited Karzai almost every day,” said one British adviser, who worked in the presidential palace in 2005-2006. “They were just about co-presidents. But when Khalilzad left, it was just Eikenberry. They never seemed to invite the U.S. ambassador to these meetings.”

Eikenberry is, so far at least, too polite to express publicly any angst at being given a taste of his own medicine, but the U.S. Embassy is very much in shadow these days. Petraeus and the Pentagon are the driving forces behind the Afghanistan strategy, despite a strong Secretary of State and a well-publicized but remarkably ineffectual “civilian surge” in Afghanistan.

Gates has made no secret of his feeling about diplomacy versus military might: his position is that the Taliban will not be ready for negotiations until they are beaten to a pulp on the battlefield.

Eikenberry, now nearing the end of his ambassadorial posting, is letting some of his frustration show. He has been an outspoken critic of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, opposing the troop surge in 2009 and labeling Karzai “not an adequate strategic partner” in a supposedly secret cable to Washington that was leaked to the New York Times.

The U.S. ambassador told his boss, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that sending more soldiers to Afghanistan was not worth the sacrifice of blood and treasure; that the Afghan government was hopelessly corrupt, and the timeline for progress naively optimistic.

Eikenberry’s concerns, as we know, were ignored. U.S. President Barack Obama went ahead with the surge, the war is now being painted as a success, albeit with “fragile and reversible” gains, and the military are even being given the responsibility for negotiating peace with the Taliban, if Karzai is to be believed.

Petraeus is being lionized, and will soon go home to assume control over the Central Intelligence Agency. Eikenberry’s future is not yet clear.

Maybe the former general should have stayed in uniform.

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