Lessons learned after 10 years of war in Afghanistan


Eikenberry in Herat, Afghanistan.
Photo credit: 
Courtesy Karl Eikenberry

Karl Eikenberry has a unique perspective on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The former ambassador to Kabul, his 35-year career in the army includes an 18-month tour as commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces in the country. As the conflict hit the 10-year mark, Eikenberry discussed President Obama’s Afghanistan strategy, the challenge of working with Pakistan, and the problem of overpromising.

We are coming up on 10 years in Afghanistan. What’s your snapshot of where we are now and where Afghanistan is going?

We're on the right path. The president has adopted a strategy that by the end of 2014 – if it’s well implemented – will have us in a position, and have the Afghans in a position, where the Afghans will be fully responsible for providing their own security.

It's going to require that the Afghan army and the Afghan police continue to develop sufficient capabilities so that by 2014 they have the right numbers and the right quality to allow our military forces to step back into a supporting role. It's going to require that the Afghan government continues to make improvements in terms of its accountability and its responsiveness to its people. And third, it's going to require that Pakistan make more efforts to attack the sanctuaries that Afghan Taliban currently enjoys there.

That doesn't mean we’ll be at a point where the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan ends. We'll continue to provide security assistance to the Afghan national security forces beyond 2014. We will continue to have a robust diplomatic mission at the end of 2014. I would expect that we'll still have a substantial foreign assistance program to Afghanistan – not at the level it is right now, but still substantial by global standards, and we’ll still, I expect, remain very diplomatically engaged in that part of the world.

So you've laid out three things: capacity building, governance, and Pakistan. Can we accomplish all three?

I think we have a reasonable possibility for success. I would not put probability against that. We know how to do capacity building especially with security forces, and I'd say over the last decade, we’ve made some important gains in knowing how to do that. It takes time, it takes resources, and it takes patience. The second thing – "good governance" – that's harder.

Ultimately, you can only have success in the first category of capacity building if you have success in the second category because all those institutions have to rest upon a foundation of what the people might say is reasonable, good governance, something that they’re willing to voluntarily support. That's more problematic.

The third category, Pakistan, is even more problematic. Their support of the Afghan Taliban is still seen by some elements within the state of Pakistan as being in their national security interest.

Are there things you think the U.S. policy makers have learned in Afghanistan that can be applied elsewhere?

I do. If you look in any of the domains we’re working in in Afghanistan – security assistance, rule of law, education and health – there are good lessons we've learned over time. Americans are extraordinarily adaptive. We’re creative. One of our good characteristics is that we frequently pull back from an enterprise, sum up lessons learned, be self critical, and continue to improve.

Another lesson learned coming out of Afghanistan may be the need to get a better understanding of what’s realistic in terms of setting goals and objectives. When we went into Afghanistan it’s fair to say that all of us – the international community, the Americans, the Afghans – did not fully understand the level of effort that would be needed to achieve some of the goals and objectives that we initially set for ourselves. 

I think if we could roll the clock back and go back in time, one of the lessons is that we might have tried to under promise more and then over deliver. When we went in in 2001 and 2002 we had talked about infrastructure that would be developed, how fast institutions would be built, how fast representative democracy might be able to take hold.

I think historians will look back and say they didn't really understand the complexities and the problems, they didn’t fully understand just how difficult this might all be.