McChrystal’s revenge: Everyone hates Karl Eikenberry

In the wake of General McChrystal's firing, supporters of his counterinsurgency strategy have shifted to the blame game. Their target? US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry. But is Eikenberry really at fault, or has he been right all along?

I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

Supporter’s of General McChrystal’s counterinsurgency policy are heart-broken over his firing. Not that they don’t agree with it, very few COINdinistas took the position that McChrystal should be permitted to undermine civilian control of policy as he did so plainly in the Rolling Stone piece. Support for McChrystal came instead in the form of “he’s our only hope” and warnings about ruining the war effort. Nevertheless, McChrystal was fired, and now his supporters want revenge.

The target of this vengeance is quite clear: Karl Eikenberry, US Ambassador to Afghanistan. Take a look at these snippets from across the blogosphere, keeping mind that this is just a sample of the anti-Eikenberry sentiment out there.

Josh Shahryar:

When McChrystal finally got troops, he had to figure out a way around Eikenberry’s meddling into what was supposed to be his operation.


So now I am waiting for that POS Eikenberry to be fired along with that ineffective Holbrooke. The relationship between the military and civilian leadership in Afghanistan is a two-way street. If the Ambassador and Special Envoy don’t get along with Karzai and cannot influence him or even get a meeting with him then they need to be FIRED asap and some people need to be put into place that can be effective at their job and get along with the military leadership.

Anonymous at Danger Room:

In fact, one e-mails: “It would be a travesty if we fired McChrystal and kept Eikenberry.”

Not only is McChrystal the “only one with any sort of relationship with [Afghan president Hamid] Karzai,” says this civilian advisor to the McChrystal-led International Security Assistance Force. Eikenberry “has no plan, didn’t get COIN [counterinsurgency] when he was the commander and still doesn’t.” Plus, the advisor adds: “The Embassy hates Eik. That’s not necessarily an indictment (I’m no fan of the Embassy). But it contributes to the dysfunction and it means that half the Embassy is focused on keeping Eik in line.”

Streetwise Professor:

Eikenberry was a backstabber from day one.

See the narrative building? McChrystal was doing a good job (they’ve leaked red meat to give pro-McChrystal progressives some lefty cover), it was that “POS Eikenberry” and his “meddling” that are really at fault. He’s a backstabber and dysfunctional. McChrystal’s violation of the relationship between civilian government and the military is no longer at issue, it’s practically ignored.  They’ve moved on to the blame game.

So McChrystal’s supporters want a scalp of their own, and they’ve chosen Eikenberry as their target. McChrystal and Eikenberry have been feuding for some time now, so it’s no surprise he draws the most wrath from the general’s dismissal. But if we actually look closer at the tension between Eikenberry and McChrystal, we see that the Eikenberry-haters are way off base. Their attacks are, at best, childish displays of sour grapes, and at worst, a fundamental misunderstanding of their own strategy. Ambassador Eikenberry is not at fault here. In fact, Eikenberry was right all along.

First off, what is this feud between McChrystal and Eikenberry about? It’s usually described very ambiguously, a disagreement over “implementation” of the strategy or something like that. But there are actually a few specific actions which amount to the battle between general and ambassador over conduct of the war.

From the Washington Post:

At times their differences over strategy have been public, particularly after two of Eikenberry’s cables to Washington last year were leaked to the news media. The cables warned that McChrystal’s request for new troops might be counterproductive as Karzai was “not an adequate strategic partner.” McChrystal’s staff members were particularly upset that they weren’t made aware of Eikenberry’s position before he sent the cables to Washington, they said in interviews.

Eikenberry has resisted some of McChrystal’s wartime experiments. The ambassador refused to release funds to expand a military effort to turn villagers into armed guards. He opposed one Army brigade’s plan to form an anti-Taliban alliance with a Pashtun tribe and funnel it development money. He criticized the military’s proposal to buy generators and diesel fuel for the energy-starved city of Kandahar and supported a longer-term hydroelectric dam project.

We’ve talked about the disagreement over the energy situation in Kandahar, but in each of these cases it’s clear that Eikenberry has had a better understanding. In all these situations it is Eikenberry, not McChrystal, who displays a better understanding of COIN strategy, that is the blending of civilian nation building with military combat. Eikenberry consistently prioritized governance, rule of law, and other long-term objectives over McChrystal’s short-term concerns about winning battles and killing the enemy. Stabilizing Afghanistan, not winning battles, is what counterinsurgency is supposedly all about. And yet Eikenberry is made out to be the bad guy.

Counterinsurgency requires the dual (dueling?) roles of military leader and diplomatic leader. As COINdinistas like to say, there has to be “unity of effort.” Both sides have to work together. Instead what we hear from them is that the McChrystal should have free rein to do whatever he wants while anything Eikenberry does is seen as “meddling,” some sort of illegitimate interference with the all-important war effort. Do the sellers of COIN even understand their own strategy? It’s not clear that they do.

Why would Eikenberry dare question our military leaders? Why would he see Karzai as “not an adequate strategic partner?” Possibly because Karzai is corrupt and sits atop an illegitimate government that functions only as an organized criminal enterprise? Why would Eikenberry oppose arming and bribing local militias? Could be because support from the military legitimizes these groups, even though they’re outlaws that pillage Afghans just the same, if not worse, than the Taliban does, in addition to undermining the central government in Kabul. Boy, that Eikenberry sure is a jerk for pointing all this stuff out.

These are just a few examples though. When we add up all the leaked cables, the wartime experiments, the history of their involvement in the war, etc, we see the full picture of Eikenberry’s trespasses against McChrystal.

The High Crimes and Treason of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry:

  • Failing to decisively win the war in Afghanistan when all attention and resources were focused on Iraq
  • Leaking important information about the war to the press
  • Resisting “short-sighted” military domination of reconstruction/nation building efforts
  • Opposing the escalation of 30,000 more US troops
  • Criticizing the corruption and illegitimacy of Hamid Karzai
  • Opposing a US strategic security guarantee with Karzai’s illegitimate administration
  • Opposing Karzai’s CIA-narco-lord brother having a role in the government
  • Opposing formation of militias which undermine the government
  • Opposing bribes of development money which corrupt and distort rule of law, nation building, etc
  • Opposing short-term energy solutions which are too expensive and cripple an already broken central government

Is it clear why everyone hates Eikenberry so much? No? I don’t understand it either.

Don’t take any of this the wrong way. Eikenberry is not a saint, a war hero, or even particularly effective in his conflicts with McChrystal. The point here is that Eikenberry was right. He was right to be transparent about strategic deliberations. He was right to oppose the military’s faulty tactics. He was right to oppose the escalation of more troops. He was right about all of these arguments with McChrystal, and with the Obama administration itself.

Obviously there is plenty of room left to criticize Eikenberry, and the State Department as a whole. Their continued association with criminal organizations like Blackwater all but negates any positive outcomes they might reach, and certainly erases any honor or integrity the institution might have. Corruption is a thriving malignancy throughout our development operations, from the contractors at the bottom to the sleazy crooks at the top. Then, of course, there’s the State Dept’s participation in COIN altogether, which is itself a deviant, militarist perversion of traditionally civilian-controlled policies like foreign aid, development, and nation building.

General McChrystal’s downfall was his own making. Eikenberry should not be thrown in with that bad lot, least of all as part of some pathetic blame game by McChrystal supporters. What’s at stake here is the war in Afghanistan, and that is clearly hopeless and unwinnable. Firing McChrystal didn’t change the fact that the US has absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose by continuing its war in Afghanistan, and neither will the revenge-firing of Ambassador Eikenberry. To get to the root of any of these problems, to really see solutions for countering terrorism and developing a stable Afghanistan, America’s longest war has to end.

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