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Our Afghan Ambassador: The Man in the Middle

When Zalmay Khalilzad was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2002 war, it was a given that President Hamid Karzai would never make a decision without first consulting him. And Khalilzad also ruled over the American agencies in the country, including the military. More than ambassador, Afghan-born Khalilzad was America’s pro-consul in Kabul.

U.S. Army Lieutenant General Karl W.Eikenberry, the ambassador nominated by Barack Obama earlier this year, enjoys no such pre-eminence. The appointment of a career military man as ambassador was seen in Washington as highly unusual, but Eikenberry came with the right credentials--two prior tours of duty in Afghanistan, and good NATO connections from his time as commanding general of combined U.S. and NATO forces in the Afghan war and from his more recent (2008) stint as deputy chairman of the NATO military committee in Brussels. Moreover, while serving in Afghanistan in 2002-2003, Eikenberry was among the first to warn of the Taliban resurgence and to call for a more robust military effort to contain and suppress it.

But as Obama has grown more determined not to allow what last week he called the “war of necessity” to degenerate into his Vietnam, more cooks have been assigned to stir the Afghan pot--some with bigger spoons than Eikenberry’s, and the ambassador “is being outgunned, and even marginalized,” says one well-informed source who spoke anonymously because he is not authorized to comment on the situation.

For the first time in its history, the State Department has appointed a deputy ambassador, career ambassador Frank Ricciardone, to the embassy in Kabul instead of the more usual deputy chief of mission. The appointment is presumably intended to provide Eikenberry with high-level diplomatic expertise, but some believe it also gives State a backchannel to the embassy.

When, earlier this month, Eikenberry sent a memo to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton making the case for an additional $2.5 billion (to the $4.1 billion already committed) in non-military spending in 2010, Deputy Secretary of State Jack Lew said--somewhat archly, it was thought--that “the [Kabul] embassy had done a lot of good work” but the department was “still working on it.” He added that there was enough money in the pipeline (about $6 billion) for Afghanistan already.

Casting his shadow over Eikenberry’s operation is Richard Holbrooke, the president’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan recently described by The New York Times as “looming, theatrical, passionate, indignant.” To nobody’s surprise who knows him, Holbrooke has in effect taken over the South Asia division at State, and runs it from his office near the Foggy Bottom cafeteria. His public statements acknowledge Eikenberry’s ambassadorial role, but leave little doubt whom he thinks is in overall charge.

The gap in perceptions was visible the other day when Holbrooke said the Taliban had failed in its attempt to derail the Afghan elections, and Eikenberry declared he was reluctant to urge Afghans to go out and vote in the face of Taliban threats of violence. “We know that on election day there won’t be perfect security out there, so I have no advice to give the Afghan common citizen, the common man,” Eikenberry was quoted as saying.

Eikenberry also has to deal with the powerful military triumvirate of Generals David Petraeus, John Abizaid, and the new Afghan commander Stanley McCrystal. That relationship is generally harmonious, except that, as ambassador, Eikenberry officially supports a policy of inclusiveness for Afghans in security and reconstruction in the midst of an escalating U.S. military offensive. “So the turf war as usual is between the army and State,” says the well-informed source. “But not only that, the diplomacy is top-heavy and has a bunch of different agendas and strategies, raising the question of who’s actually running the store.”

A European diplomat in Washington thought it unlikely that Eikenberry would allow himself to be marginalized, but added, "For a former field commander accustomed to a lot of latitude, he must at times certainly feel boxed in--frustratingly hamstrung." Afghanistan expert Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings, the Washington think tank, says Eikenberry faces the constant challenge of reconciling "competing priorities, approaches, and performances of the various agencies [that] manifest themselves with every issue.” Still, she thinks he has "the right skills" for bringing "synergy to the military and civilian efforts."

Eikenberry’s job may get harder, though. If Karzai is re-elected, as seems likely, Eikenberry may also have to parry with Zalmay Khalilzad. The Obama administration is seriously thinking of appointing him to be the chief executive to oversee the Karzai government, and vigilate against corruption--and it’s hard to imagine that the former pro-consul will take a less hands-on approach as a CEO.