Former general talks on U.S., war

Noël Um Sep 30, 2013

As an insider of the war in Afghanistan, former U.S. Army Lieutenant General and former Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry spoke last Friday about the limits of American political intervention to Pittsburgh community members, Carnegie Mellon students, faculty, and families.

University President Subra Suresh introduced Eikenberry before his lecture, which took place in McConomy Auditorium and was a part of Cèilidh Weekend.
Using examples from his experience in Afghanistan, Eikenberry stressed that making Afghanistan a better place to live is a good goal, but should not be of national importance.

According to Eikenberry, military leaders stressed that there was no other option other than the one that they took in directly entering Afghanistan and influencing change in terms of the country’s economy, educational standards, health care, and system of governance.

In his lecture, Eikenberry addressed and tested three assumptions of Field Manual 3-24, one of many field manuals that outline army tactics, techniques, and procedures.

He primarily focused on the effectiveness of the counterinsurgency (COIN) operation, which involved suppressing rebellion.

The first assumption was that the COIN doctrine goal would protect the Afghani population with a perimeter that distinguished “bad guys from good guys.” Secondly, the Afghan government would become more legitimate and accountable with higher levels of American support. Lastly, COIN doctrine — as applied in Afghanistan — was aligned with the political military approach of the Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai’s administration.

Eikenberry asked audience members to raise their hands for what they believed would be positive and effective goals for supporting the Afghani people. The audience was in favor of protecting the Afghani population against the Taliban and NARCO traffickers while increasing employment levels and providing health care.

Protection against venal police chiefs, Eikenberry pointed out, is a more divisive issue because of the complicated nature of whom to protect the Afghani people from. The predatory dominant tribe has friends in the Karzai administration, and the lesser tribe has taken to the Taliban for help.

Eikenberry posed the question: Is it the United States’ role to get engaged in that international fight?

“These are the questions that every day on the ground, your soldiers, your diplomats are struggling over,” he said.

In addressing the second claim of Field Manual 3-24, Eikenberry questioned the argument that increased military support over time would fix the Afghan government.
“The government of Afghanistan today draws about 7 percent of their GDP, almost all of that comes from custom polls.… The people are not being taxed. The services that are being provided, 80 percent is coming from the international payroll, or international donations,” he said.

The third assumption was that moving forward with a counterinsurgency strategy will be embraced by that nation’s leader. “I’ll tell you, in Afghanistan, this was not the case,” Eikenberry said.

Eikenberry posited that one reason for the lack of embrace of COIN strategies was differences in geopolitical framework. “There was a domestic political problem that traces back to Afghanistan’s history in being ruled by various powers.”

Eikenberry also spoke of the limits of American intervention by pointing out the risks of blindly committing to the statements outlined in the field manual without any consideration for other costs or repercussions.

“Extended military campaigns that are priced in the trillion-dollar range, as this one in Iraq had been, carry with them many other high national security costs,” he said.
“The war in Afghanistan has demonstrated, in my mind, that in the thrall of wanted agility and resourcefulness of our American forces, the risk of senior commanders becoming intellectually arrogant and comparably rigid is very real,” he continued.

Junior business administration major Alec Abitbol considered Eikenberry’s position regarding counterinsurgency. “General Eikenberry’s reflection on the strategy of counterinsurgency, defined by a focus on improving infrastructure and living conditions as opposed to military efforts, proposes a sentiment of regret for our involvement in the Middle East. [He brought] two important questions to mind: What if those resources had been spent domestically? [And] under what circumstances is international intervention a net negative for the U.S.?”

Eikenberry also pointed out that the seriousness and zeal with which the Field Manual 3-24 was applied, left little room for critical thought or questioning.

“However, the assumptions and risk analysis that underpin a plan must be continually challenged in a dynamic and complex conflict zone, lest commanders find themselves fighting the wrong war. Our military thought leaders must find a way to avoid this kind of trap in the future,” he said.

Eikenberry, however, followed his statement with a counterargument — saying that out of this blind commitment has come a largely positive outcome. “Having said all of this, believe me, a lot of great things have been done and will be done in Afghanistan,” he said.

As an example, Eikenberry explained that 8 million children are in schools — something that he describes as “an impressive, impressive accomplishment.”

“Ambassador Eikenberry provided a critique of the counterinsurgency strategy of our U.S. military that has been applied since the mid-2000s in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he did so from a humanities and social science standpoint,” said Kiron Skinner, director of the Center of International Relations and Politics. “To me, there could be no better military leader to speak at Carnegie Mellon — he addressed a fundamental issue in asking ‘Is the U.S. military capable of rebuilding a nation and should that be what the U.S. military does?’ ”

“This was an important event during our Cèilidh Weekend, and to me, it represents Carnegie Mellon at its best to have a speaker who was speaking on a major set of issues facing our nation and the world from an interdisciplinary standpoint,” Skinner said. “I was also honored that our new president Dr. Suresh introduced Ambassador Eikenberry — to see that our president, as busy as he is during his first semester as president, is participating in our campus-wide effort for international issues was encouraging.”

Eikenberry’s lecture was sponsored by the Center for International Relations and Politics and supported by the Humanities Scholars Program, the Office of the Vice Provost for Education, the department of social and decision sciences, and the department of modern languages.