Karl W. Eikenberry (Ambassador to Afghanistan, 2009-2011)
Cross-posted from Ambassador Eikenberry’s and Erik Jensen’s April 8, 2015 interview with In Asia.
On the eve of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s March 22–25 visit to the United States, the Stanford University Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule Law, the United States Institute for Peace, and Chatham House convened a two-day conference in Washington on lessons learned for strengthening the state in Afghanistan. The conference brought together some fifty U.S., Afghan, and other international policy experts with extensive experience in state-building efforts in Afghanistan since 2002. The Asia Foundation’s Karl Eikenberry, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, who commanded the NATO coalition forces there, and Erik Jensen, director of Stanford’s Rule of Law Program, helped organize the event, and they sat down with In Asia for a conversation about the road ahead for Afghanistan.
In the policy note that you prepared for the conference, you observe that a narrative of failure has drowned out some of the successes in Afghanistan. Can you say more?
First, as participants at the conference noted, the ultimate measure of success in Afghanistan was peace. Peace was not realized, and, in fact, the security situation declined from 2006 onward. 2014 was the bloodiest year in the post-Taliban era.
Second, perceptions of failure were magnified by the multiple objectives of the mission: counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and the subordinate task of state-building. For example, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams deployed in Afghanistan were engaged in state-building as an instrument of counterinsurgency. Indeed, promoting good local governance, rooting out corruption, and reforming the justice sector were at the heart of the counterinsurgency strategy to fight the Taliban. But when state-building goals conflicted with counterinsurgency and counterterrorism goals, the latter always trumped the former.
Third, the metrics for success in development assistance were too short-term and wholly unrealistic. They reflected political pressure from the capitals of Western donors rather than a professional assessment of the actual time it would take to build institutions. And while slow progress in the development of institutions did occur, efforts to sync development progress in Afghanistan with the political cycles in Western donor countries were bound to fail. After 2006, the influx of funding was too great to be effectively absorbed by development programs on the ground. The growth of funding spurred a vicious cycle of increased political scrutiny that shortened the already unrealistic timeline to meet development objectives; which in turn led to a mind-numbing proliferation of metrics seeking to demonstrate progress; which, ironically, fueled corruption and undermined the state. Meanwhile, the larger narrative of a bloody and ongoing civil war always attracted more media coverage than the more modest, but nevertheless significant, development successes.