Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Toasted Eikenberry?

The New York Times today offers up the text of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s previously disclosed cables from last November opposing Gen. McChrystal’s proposed surge and counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. I’m not sure what the purpose of printing them now is, but I found the cables interesting. Eikenberry makes a lot of well-reasoned argument about why ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The New York Times today offers up the text of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry's previously disclosed cables from last November opposing Gen. McChrystal's proposed surge and counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. I'm not sure what the purpose of printing them now is, but I found the cables interesting.

Eikenberry makes a lot of well-reasoned argument about why he thinks McChrystal is wrong. But as I read them, I had the nagging feeling that he was mounting exactly the same set of arguments that Eikenberry's long-time friend Gen. John Abizaid made against the Iraq surge back in the fall of 2006, along with Gen. George Casey and just about everybody else in the leadership of the U.S. military establishment. "Rather then reducing Afghan dependence, sending more troops, therefore, is likely to deepen it, at least in the short term," Eikenberry writes. "That would further delay our goal of shifting the combat burden to the Afghans." Yes, that was indeed the Casey plan in Iraq, too.

But then there is the troublesome role played by Pakistan. Eikenberry argues -- I think correctly -- that:

The New York Times today offers up the text of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry’s previously disclosed cables from last November opposing Gen. McChrystal’s proposed surge and counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan. I’m not sure what the purpose of printing them now is, but I found the cables interesting.

Eikenberry makes a lot of well-reasoned argument about why he thinks McChrystal is wrong. But as I read them, I had the nagging feeling that he was mounting exactly the same set of arguments that Eikenberry’s long-time friend Gen. John Abizaid made against the Iraq surge back in the fall of 2006, along with Gen. George Casey and just about everybody else in the leadership of the U.S. military establishment. "Rather then reducing Afghan dependence, sending more troops, therefore, is likely to deepen it, at least in the short term," Eikenberry writes. "That would further delay our goal of shifting the combat burden to the Afghans." Yes, that was indeed the Casey plan in Iraq, too.

But then there is the troublesome role played by Pakistan. Eikenberry argues — I think correctly — that:

More troops won’t end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain. Pakistan will remain the single greatest source of Afghan instability so long as the border sanctuaries remain, and Pakistan views its strategic interests as best served by a weak neighbor.

Good argument. On the other hand, how different is that really from the role that Iran is playing in Iraq, especially in the goal of having a weak, pliable neighbor?  

I find myself ambivalent about Eikenberry’s memo, I think partly because I remain ambivalent about the surge in Iraq, which I think succeeded tactically but failed strategically. That is, it improved security but didn’t lead to a political breakthrough. It certainly is possible to have the same thing in Afghanistan. On the other hand, even that half-baked outcome beats the alternative.

That said, I am more optimistic about Afghanistan (but not about Pakistan) than I am about Iraq. We have a great ace in the hole in Afghanistan: The Afghan people have experienced Islamic extremist rule and they generally don’t want it to come back. We don’t hold a similar ace in Iraq.      

I don’t know why this memo was leaked now, but I don’t see it making it any easier for Eikenberry to work with President Karzai — or with General McChrystal. I wonder if he is a short-timer. Maybe replace him with old Holbrooke?  

Meanwhile, in other COIN news, this Gian vs. John piece captures the debate well. Everybody else already has blogged it but I still wanted to point it out.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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