Karl Eikenberry on the Afghan Strategy under the Trump Administration

Interview by William Zheyuan Shi (CMC ’20), Staff Writer


Karl Eikenberry is the Oksenberg-Rohlen Distinguished Fellow and Director of the U.S-Asia Security Initiative at Stanford University’s Asia-Pacific Research Center. He is a Stanford University Professor of Practice, and an affiliate at the FSI Center for Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law, Center for International Security Cooperation, and The Europe Center.

Prior to his arrival at Stanford, Eikenberry served as the U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan from May 2009 until July 2011, where he led the civilian surge directed by President Obama to reverse insurgent momentum and set the conditions for transition to full Afghan sovereignty. 

Before his appointment as Chief of Mission in Kabul, Eikenberry had a thirty-five year career in the United States Army, retiring in April 2009 with the rank of Lieutenant General. His military operational posts included commander and staff officer with mechanized, light, airborne, and ranger infantry units in the continental United States, Hawaii, Korea, Italy, and Afghanistan as the Commander of the American-led Coalition forces from 2005 to 2007. 

He has served in various policy and political-military positions, including Deputy Chairman of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Military Committee in Brussels, Belgium; Director for Strategic Planning and Policy for U.S. Pacific Command at Camp Smith, Hawaii; U.S. Security Coordinator and Chief of the Office of Military Cooperation in Kabul, Afghanistan; Assistant Army and later Defense Attaché at the United States Embassy in Beijing, China; Senior Country Director for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia in the Office of the Secretary of Defense; and Deputy Director for Strategy, Plans, and Policy on the Army Staff.

He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, has master’s degrees from Harvard University in East Asian Studies and Stanford University in Political Science, and was a National Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He also earned an Interpreter’s Certificate in Mandarin Chinese from the British Foreign Commonwealth Office while studying at the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense Chinese Language School in Hong Kong and has an Advanced Degree in Chinese History from Nanjing University in the People’s Republic of China. 

The recipient of multiple military awards, he has also received the U.S. Department of State Distinguished, Superior, and Meritorious Honor Awards, Director of Central Intelligence Award, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award as well as other awards for his public service.

On September 18, 2017, he spoke with CJLPP staff writer William Zheyuan Shi (CMC ’20). Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Eikenberry and the M.M.C. Athenaeum.


CJLPP: President Trump announced a new strategy in Afghanistan on August 21, 2017 without specifying the exact number of troops the U.S. should commit or the conditions that determine the success. In your opinion, what are the objectives of the new administration? How does the strategy differ from that of the Obama administration?

Eikenberry: President Trump, as Candidate Trump, had indicated that he was skeptical of the war efforts in Afghanistan, since we’ve been there for too much time, and we were not achieving results. Then he had a review of our strategy conducted. I think that he was persuaded over the course of the review, by Defense Secretary Mattis and by National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster that it was a big risk for the United States to pull all of its military forces out of Afghanistan, and to end our counter-terrorist mission and the mission of providing material and training support, as well as advisory support, for the Afghan National Army and Police. His concern was that if he did this, Afghanistan would become a vacuum, and in that vacuum Al-Qaeda, ISIS and other international terrorist forces would gain ground. That led him to the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan with the primary focus being to accelerate the training and develop further competency within the Afghan National Army primarily and their police. The new focus is on special forces and the development of capabilities within the Afghan forces such as their air forces, so that they would be able to operate with less assistance from U.S. military forces.

How does it differ from previous strategies? As President Trump has said to the American people, he is not going to give a timeline for when this U.S. assistance may end. He is distinguishing this approach from the one that President Obama adopted during his first term of the administration, when he ordered a lot more troops to Afghanistan under his time as the Commander-in-Chief. But President Obama also indicated he would culminate the surge of forces that he was sending to Afghanistan within two years. For instance, President Trump said that he is not telling the Taliban when we are going to pull forces out. He also said he would put more pressure on Pakistan, which still provides sanctuaries and assistance to the Taliban and other insurgencies in Afghanistan. He has finally indicated that the support that we provide to the Afghanistan in terms of development, assistance and foreign aid will be conditional. President Trump emphasized that our goal is to improve government accountability and have more serious and hopefully successful efforts to fight corruption in Afghanistan. How does that differ, though, from previous administrations previous approaches? Not stating a time for the drawdown of American forces does distinguish that approach from President Obama’s. To be sure, as he announced the drawdown of the surge forces, President Obama, did not specify the pace of troop withdrawal. There is a difference there, but with regard to more pressure on Pakistan, conditional support to the Afghan government, and requiring them to improve on their fight against corruption, I don’t see much difference at all from the previous administrations. Those were proved very difficult to achieve, and the Trump Administration will find also that efforts to try to persuade Pakistan to not accommodate and support the Taliban, and his efforts to compel the Afghan government to improve its performance will prove in both cases very difficult to achieve.

CJLPP: Some critics doubt the utility of sending more troops in Afghanistan without addressing Pakistan’s role in the conflict. What can be accomplished with more U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan without any change to Pakistan harboring Taliban leaders?

Eikenberry: First of all, let me address the issue of more troops in Afghanistan. The Taliban was able to withstand the pressure that the U.S., international and Afghan forces put on them at the height of the surge in 2010-2011; U.S. forces at that time numbered 100,000; international forces about 30,000, and Afghan Army and Police combined about 350,000. The total number of U.S. and international troops together is now 13,000. According to reports, perhaps 4,000 additional troops will go into Afghanistan. If you think of the scale of our efforts, we are talking about raising the level from 13,000 to 17,000, compared to where we were before in levels of our efforts this is really a marginal, not a significant, increase. Having said that, the focus of these additional troops will be not fighting combat operations directly, we are not doing that except for our counterterrorist forces, but they are there to help improve the performance of the Afghan National Army.

There are, at that level, 4,000 additional troops, perhaps, now extending their presence from just higher-level Afghan headquarters to starting to get out to field commands, which are closes to the frontlines against the Taliban. They can make a difference there. The Taliban in recent years has gained a lot more ground in the countryside. With additional U.S. efforts, the Afghan Army and Police will at least hold on to what they have and maybe to make some gains. It remains to be seen, though, whether or not that will make a lasting difference in terms of improving the capability of the Afghan Army and Police when the United States starts drawing down our forces. This is going to be predicated upon the ability the Afghan government to improve its competency and support for the Afghan people. With regard to Pakistan, it’s going to be more difficult for the prospects to get lasting political and security sector reforms enacted in the country. The leverages that we have with Pakistan in order to get them to change policies and approaches are limited.

CJLPP: Is Pakistan’s support for the Taliban related to Pakistan’s need to counterbalance India? Is there a way for the U.S. to address Pakistan’s geopolitical concerns in order to gain greater cooperation and support for U.S. efforts in Afghanistan?  

Eikenberry: That’s a very important question. Clearly, parts of Pakistan’s policies with respect to Afghanistan are informed by their view of the geopolitics of their neighborhood. In that regard, since the partition that created Pakistan and India, they’ve lost all three of those wars. India is their giant on their eastern flank, and they look at Afghanistan, as a kind of buffer as a kind of strategic reserve, or strategic depth. If they were to fight a war with India, then the ability of the Pakistani forces to fall back and be received in a friendly Afghanistan matters. Also they worry about geopolitical encirclement by India. The Pakistanis want a government in Kabul that’s friendly to them and can be, if not controlled, at least be dominated from the Islamabad.

But that with regard to the United States, can we do anything to help allay Pakistani concerns? I’m skeptical. The Pakistan government and Pakistan military have to come to grip with this. Solution has to be through dialogues with India. There is possibility there. But to date, although I think there are some improvements in India-Pakistan relations since the last real crisis, which was the awful attacks in 2008 in Mumbai by a group of terrorists who were connected to the Pakistan intelligence services, in some ways that there’s been no dramatic improvement. Only dialogues have occurred, but not enough has happened to fundamentally change the way that Pakistan views Afghanistan. If Pakistan were to reach a conclusion, that the terrorists threats in its own country emanating to Afghanistan is more of an existential threat than India, then we would see a change in Pakistani behavior. There are some in the Pakistani army and Pakistani intelligence that do consider that the rising threat of militant extremism within their own borders and the regions could be more serious threats, but the dominant view within the national security community inside Pakistan remains that India is the existential threat.

CJLPP: In his speech, President Trump stated that the U.S. would not focus on state-building but on “killing terrorists”. The Afghan government’s capacity to deal with challenges from insurgency groups is extremely low. The government controls only about two-thirds of all territory, and Afghanistan’s economy is highly dependent on the U.S. How can the U.S. achieve its objective of fighting terrorism without addressing Afghanistan’s fundamental problems of state capacity?

Eikenberry: I don’t think that the United States or the Afghans can succeed in the fight against militant extremism, unless the problem of weak governance and very poor economic performance is adequately addressed. If that is so, how can we help the Afghans in the world of governance and the economy. The challenge is that Afghanistan remains a very fragmented and traumatized country after so many decades of warfare. Its search for national identity remains one that is still ongoing. In the sense of nationhood among the Afghan people, over recent years, they have not been able to live with each other in peace. That’s the challenge. The question is how long does it take a country that has had such a traumatic path to develop that sense of national identity and the norms of rules of laws, and the answer is it takes a considerable amount of time. Therefore, projects that aim to improve governance measured in years rather than decades are generally met with great disappointment. The problem is one that the neighbors of Afghanistan and the international community need to remain to be invested in, but time is needed. So are there ways to get an agreement with countries in Afghanistan’s neighborhood and the major powers to not meddle inside Afghanistan’s affairs, to have a completed agreement that international terrorism will not be tolerated by the international community inside of Afghanistan and to be better partners with the Afghan government? There is need for a very long-term program to help stabilize the country and develop institutions over decades. That’s what it would take, but the difficulty is trying to get the agreement in the region and major powers as to what Afghanistan would look like and to get the agreements about how to cooperate or at least an agreement as to how not to interfere.

CJLPP: The Taliban began as a student organization that gained popularity in part due to its condemnation of government corruption and its support for Sharia Law.  How do different groups in the Afghan society view the Taliban today?

Eikenberry: By and large, among the Afghan people, still an overwhelming number reject the Taliban. Every year, the Asia Foundation conducts a survey of the Afghan people. The first year they conducted the survey was 2004. The survey conducted annually asks the Afghan people around the country, based on different age group and gender, questions about how they view their government, how they view their lives, how they view the Taliban, and how they view the international military forces and community that’s been operating within their countries. Consistently, the support for the Taliban has been at levels of between 20 percent and 15 percent. In certain parts of Afghanistan, it might be higher. Interestingly, since the U.S. drew down its forces from that level of 100,000 to the current 8,500 (it likely will go to up to 12,500 now), that support for the Taliban became even lower even as the security situation was getting worse.

The Taliban has as their mantra that they are here to help liberate the Afghanistan from foreign occupation forces. But people start to have doubts about that as their primary goal as the number of U.S. and foreign forces came way down. They still rejected the Taliban; they still rejected the efforts to negotiate with the Taliban. I think that the Afghan people reject the Taliban as an extremist group, but they still have their own very weak government, grievances against that government, problems of corruption, so you have the Afghan villagers, or some disenfranchised people in urban areas, that do not want to return to Taliban rule; they view the Taliban as feudal, brutal and intolerant. The Taliban offers them and their families no hope except for brutal security. But at the same time, they have their grievances against the Afghan government; it is not meeting their expectations, not providing security, not providing for their material welfare, and is suffering from corruption. So they won’t proactively offer that government their support. That leads then to a weak government because of the absence of broad support from its people; it won’t have the means to control the country, and won’t have the means to be able to defeat the Taliban.

CJLPP: You mentioned a survey conducted in different regions, was that survey also conducted in the territory controlled by the Taliban?

Eikenberry: Yes, the annual survey conducted by the Asia Foundation is very sophisticated. It has high praise from polling organizations around the world. You think about the challenges of polling in Afghanistan. Let me just give a couple: high illiteracy in the countryside is a problem; the security problems are significant. There is also a third problem. Women in rural areas generally remain inside household compounds, so you need people conducting these surveys who are Afghan women and who are going to be invited to a home to conduct their surveys. All that said, the conduct of these surveys beginning in 2004 has been impressive. This is especially true if you look at the consistency of the results in different regions where you sometimes see spikes in numbers, which were clearly correlated to an exogenous or endogenous shock that occurred within that particular part of the country. 

CJLPP: How do these attitudes affect the prospect of a power-sharing government in Afghanistan?

Eikenberry: That’s an excellent question as well. There is great suspicion of the Taliban. Most Afghans reject platforms that will not be tolerant to Afghan woman receiving any education or return to Sharia Law, say in urban areas of Afghanistan. But if you ask the Afghan people “do you believe in negotiation and reconciliation,” the numbers are high. When you ask the question, “do you want to renegotiate,” the Afghan people tired of war will say yes, but then when you ask the questions about what is the acceptable outcome of that negotiation –a return to the Taliban rule of 2001, very brutal, very intolerant, and the rule of man versus the rule of law –those Afghans would say no. They don’t support that. They want to end the fighting, but there was limit to what concessions they were willing to make to achieve peace. 

CJLPP: Given the expansion of Taliban-controlled territory, the emergence of Al-Qaeda and ISIS in recent years, and the difficulty in building a stable Afghan government, do you think that the U.S. faces a stalemate in Afghanistan in the long run? 

Eikenberry: In the long run, the absence of improvement in the quality of the Afghan government, and failure to change Pakistan’s behavior, and to compel Pakistan or to persuade Pakistan to reduce its support for the insurgencies in Afghanistan, then I’m skeptical that we could expect the stability to come to that country within the next two or three years. The United States has a challenge in that, although it has a program in Afghanistan, which the Trump Administration now announced, to improve the quality and capabilities of the Afghan government and national security forces and to find ways to improve the performance of the Afghan government through conditions-based aid. The fact remains that the Afghan people are not certain about the endurance of the U.S. commitment. The U.S. under President Obama reached a level of 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and had bilateral aid programs of $4 billion a year. Now in this year of 2017, we are seeing it going from 8,500 to maybe 12,500 troops, and our aid program is not going to increase significantly, at about $1 billion per year, compared with $4.2 billion dollars per year before. I think that the Afghan people are skeptical that the United States, even at the levels that President Trump is talking about, will raise our involvement too. They are skeptical that the United States will really have a very long-term commitment because they see our commitment rise to a certain level and then come down drastically. I believe that their view would be that the Trump Administration after a several more years may lose confidence, hope and willingness to stay committed. The Trump Administration will have to work very hard to try to convince them that it’s otherwise.

 CJLPP: That concludes our interview. Thank you so much for your insight and expertise.

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