Eikenberry looks to future of American military, calls for more accountability

Barack-Obama-Ambassador-Afghanistan-Karl-Eikenberry-General-Stanley-McChrystal.jpeg

Karl Eikenberry, left, meets with Gen. Stanley McChrystal and President Barack Obama in the Oval Office, Dec. 7, 2009.
Photo credit: 
White House

Karl Eikenberry has spent the better part of the last 40 years in uniform, and much of it in combat zones. Then as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, he continued a mission of service to his country.

Now he's offering his thoughts on the future of the military, and even turning a critical eye on the institution he has long served.

But, he told an audience during his second Payne Lecture, hosted by Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, "We must not confuse dissent for disloyalty."

Eikenberry, who left the Army in 2009 when he became ambassador, said he has been disturbed in recent years by how political leaders have been using the military and by what he characterized as the military's outsized role in determining national security and foreign policy.

"These are problems that have to be acknowledged and debated publicly for the good of the nation and, I believe, our Armed Forces," he said during the May 3 lecture.

He said the dissolution of the draft after the Vietnam War led to the creation of an incredibly competent and capable military, but one that elected officials are more willing to deploy.

Drafted vs. voluntary armed forces

"Question No. 1," Eikenberry asked the audience, "If we had a conscript Armed Forces in 2003 and that conscript Armed Forces then are the sons and daughters, drafted, of constituents of our members of Congress, I want you to raise your hand if you think in 2003 we would have invaded Iraq."

Eikenberry questioned, as well, whether Congress would have held hearings – which it hasn't done – into the killings of Americans and allied servicemen by Afghan soldiers and police if the victims had been draftees rather than enlistees.

After only a few hands went up, Eikenberry said, "When you see those results, is there something wrong with the system?"

The former lieutenant general, who did not endorse a draft, urged a debate on ownership of the military: Does it belong to the American people or politicians?

He warned that the separation between soldiers and civilians – in daily life on bases, for example – also leads to ignorance of how the other lives. The separation can mean less judiciousness by lawmakers when determining whether to send service members into war, he said.

He also criticized the lack of oversight of the military by Congress and the media.

"I witnessed this up close and personal in Afghanistan when I transitioned from general to the top diplomat," he said. "Formerly treated with great deference by members of Congress, both I and my embassy team were now constantly on the witness stand."

He said lawmakers were right to challenge them: "We're spending a good deal of taxpayers' money."

He said as a member of the military, he never experienced that kind of scrutiny, as lawmakers are reluctant to be seen as less than fully supportive of troops.

"But by not subjecting the military to the same rigorous standards of scrutiny, they were applying a double standard and I don't think they were doing their complete jobs," he said.

He also said the media have failed to provide critical analysis of military engagements because of relentless pressure to file stories and fear they'll lose authoritative sources if they question actions.

Eikenberry spoke about responsibility and accountability within the military itself, as well.

Regarding the second Iraq war, he said the failure to anticipate the post-invasion environment was a massive failure of military command and planning, not just civilian.

"The costs of this failure have been enormous," he said. "And yet, there has been no accounting."

The 'strategic corporal'

He also talked about the "strategic corporal," a term coined by then-Marine Corps Commandant General Charles Krulak in 1999. The strategic corporal refers to the serviceman whose missteps, wittingly or unwittingly, can have a strategic impact on the outcome of a military campaign.

He said in World War II there were no strategic corporals, only strategic commanders. A corporal's missteps would likely not affect military advancement in a battle.

"In the 21st century, however, in an era of instantaneous global communications and decentralized combat fought across very complex political, ethnic and religious mosaics, the strategic corporal does decidedly exist," he said, mentioning Abu Ghraib, the recent Koran burnings and the suspected murder of 17 Afghan civilians by an Army soldier.

"When the president of the United States has to apologize frequently for the misdeeds of members of our Armed Forces on the global stage as he's had to do in recent months, I have to say, I don't think that he or the American people are being well served," Eikenberry said.

He said in those cases of misdeeds, the mission may be too risky or the strategy not well planned out, and policy should possibly be reconsidered.

As the war in Afghanistan winds down and the military's mission is refocused, Eikenberry said the biggest security threat to the U.S. is a faltering economy. He echoed the sentiments of former Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who said in 2010 that he considered the country's growing debt to be its No. 1 security threat.

"With a broken economy, our country cannot make the foundational investments in education, research and development, and infrastructure that are absolutely essential to sustaining a strong defense," Eikenberry said.

Eikenberry said retirement and health care costs in the Defense Department also are ballooning.

Eikenberry said it is important to keep our research and development lead, invest in education, ensure we have systems in place to defend U.S. borders against terrorism and invest more in alliances and partnerships as the world becomes more multi-polar.

He also said the military needs to know what it's after.

"With the end of the Afghan and Iraq conflicts, and our current fiscal crisis, our military leaders and our civilian leaders, they need to better define threats and they must be ready to address today and tomorrow these threats," he said.