When Generals and Ambassadors Feud

Take it from this former ambassador: Disagreements over the war in Afghanistan may do more long-term harm than short-term good.


In 2007 in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus and Amb. Ryan Crocker set a model for civil-military collaboration: They never let daylight show between their positions — not to outsiders, not to official Washington, not even to their own staffs. In providing differing advice to Washington over troop levels in Afghanistan, General McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry have diverged from this model.

Ambassador Crocker wisely recognized that the U.S. president, the congress, and the American people were looking primarily to Gen. Petraeus and his 160,000 troops to secure Iraq, and only secondarily to Crocker and his 1,000 diplomats and aid workers. Crocker chose to fight his policy battles not in Washington, but in Iraq. Petraeus for his part, was very sensitive to the need to secure unity of effort with his civilian partner, and to harness the expertise of his large and competent staff.  McCrystal and Eikenberry don’t seem to have established the same chemistry.

Ambassador Eikenberry’s reported recommendation — that troop reinforcements be withheld until Afghan President Hamid Karzai demonstrates unmistakable signs government reform — has a clear logic, and an equally clear limitation. Of course, the United States and its allies want Karzai to crack down on corruption, to appoint competent officials, and then to back them up. But are they willing to put their own mission, and the lives of their own troops, at greater risk should Karzai remain recalcitrant?

The dilemma mirrors one that I saw play out as a young Foreign Service officer serving under Averell Harriman, who was then heading the American delegation to the Vietnam peace talks. At one point early on in that multi-year effort, several members of our delegation expressed frustration at the South Vietnamese government’s resistance to a Washington proposal for the North. Why, they asked Harriman, couldn’t the United States successfully pressure South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to go along? 

Harriman responded that client regimes held one card that trumped any pressure their much more powerful sponsors could bring to bear: They could threaten to collapse.

Unfortunately, this pretty well describes the dilemma Barack Obama faces in dealing with Karzai. The United States can threaten Karzai’s political survival, and he can respond by threatening the success of the U.S. endeavor. Of course the fate of Karzai’s own regime should mean more to him than it does to the United States. But what if it doesn’t?

McChrystal and Eikenberry both have impressive credentials. Their selection for their current posts reflected Obama’s determination to field his A team in Afghanistan. But Eikenberry’s main qualification is also a potential source of tension, as he was one of McChrystal’s predecessors commanding U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006 (as pictured above). Gen.McChrystal has, with some justification, voiced criticism of the American and allied efforts in Afghanistan in the past. Gen. (now Amb.) Eikenberry would be less than human if he did not bridle at such criticism, also with some justification since Eikenberry lacked anything like the force levels and other resources that McChrystal already enjoys.

In the short term, President Obama has probably profited from getting candid, if differing, advice from his two principal on-the-scene representatives. But sustained divisions of this sort are likely to have a pernicious effect on his administration’s prospects for success in Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have so far proved remarkably collegial and collaborative. Like the Petraeus-Crocker partnership, the relationship between Gates and Clinton would seem a model for their lieutenants in the field to emulate.

James Dobbins is a senior fellow and distinguished chair in diplomacy and security at the RAND Corporation. He has held State Department and White House posts including assistant secretary of state for Europe, special assistant to the president for the Western Hemisphere, special adviser to the president, secretary of state for the Balkans, and ambassador to the European community. Dobbins has served on numerous crisis management and diplomatic troubleshooting assignments as special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti, and Somalia for the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. In 2013, he returned to the State Department to become the Obama administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, returning to RAND in 2014.

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