A Leader's Journey: Former ambassador Eikenberry divulges takeaways from international career
After serving in the army for 35 years and retiring at the rank of lieutenant general as a highly decorated officer, Karl Eikenberry served as the United States ambassador to Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011. Currently, he is the Frank E. and Arthur W. Payne Distinguished Lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. The Chronicle's Aradhna Madireddi sat down with Eikenberry to discuss U.S. and Afghan relations, his career in diplomacy and his future plans.
The Chronicle: You were born in Indiana, raised in the Midwest, and then you came to North Carolina for high school. Basically, you moved around a lot. How was that experience?
Karl Eikenberry: Moving around gave me the opportunity to be exposed to different cultures—although in my case I was only in the United States. But having to pick up, set back down, make new friends, I think that it differs from person to person. I think in general, if you have supportive parents helping you to be more aware of different cultures, it really helps build personal skills. You’re also being exposed to different academic curricula and there is an emphasis on teaching subject matters that might be stressed within a particular system. So all of that proved to be very helpful to me and then I ended up following that and becoming a professional military officer.
TC: Were you an only child?
KE: No, I had an older sister.
TC: And how was the entire experience for her? Was she as open to moving from place to place?
KE: You know, it was more challenging for her because it was during her senior year when we made our move to Goldsboro. When you’re at that age it’s hard, whereas, in my case, I was entering my sophomore year. So I did my sophomore, junior, and senior years at Goldsboro.
TC: What did your parents do for a living and how did your family background influence your career choice?
KE: My father was a business manager and he was very good at taking over companies that were having problems making a profit. He was actually president of companies that produced things. So he was a very skilled leader and was very commanding. He liked organizational challenges and I found that very inspiring. My mother was a part-time English teacher and spent the rest of her time around the household. In terms of influence, she taught me to treat employees with dignity and great respect. Also, any kind of writing skills that I have, she has a lot to do with that, because she had a great command in English.
TC: You had a 35-year background in the military and you retired as a Lieutenant General. At that point, you had so many different skills in terms of leadership and decision-making. How did that transition into your career as ambassador?
KE: You have to carefully take into account the organization of structure and the mission of the organization. In the case of the embassy that I led in Afghanistan, the mission was unusual for any embassy because it was supporting a surge effort to help a war-torn country to develop a government and get its economy moving. We don’t get that in many places around the world. When we look at the organization structure, I was in charge of the whole embassy team, the [Federal Bureau of Investigation], Department of Treasury and Justice.
TC: Why Afghanistan? Was it your choice? The president had directly appointed you and the New York Times wrote that this appointment was highly unusual. Was it unusual because you had served in the army and then became an ambassador?
KE: It was unusual that there have been very few ambassadors appointed by the president who have had a background as officers. For instance, during the Vietnam War, one of our ambassadors in Vietnam was Maxwell Taylor, who had been a four star general. So it’s not unprecedented but it’s not usual. But then again, the war in Afghanistan was not usual.
I think what the President and Secretary of State had in mind was, first of all, somebody who knew Afghanistan reasonably well. Secondly, I did have a military background and we were entering a period where we were going to be reinforcing our military efforts in Afghanistan. To have an ambassador that had a better understanding of military operations could be useful.
The president, early on, decided to increase not only the military effort, but also the civilian effort. With that came the task of building the American embassy from when I took over in May of 2009. Two and a half years later, the development budget of Afghanistan went from pretty hefty to very large—it went to $4.1 billion. So what does that have to do with my military background? I have experience scaling upward organizations and leading a large complex unit and planning and implementing large budgets.
TC: What is your take on the president’s decision to withdraw the troops?
KE: The president makes a decision with the president of Afghanistan, with the heads of state of NATO, our allies, for the end of combat operations in Afghanistan. That means that Afghan troops will be responsible for front line of security operations, because they’ve been given good training and at some point they’re going to have to take over this responsibility. The president, along with President Karzai, reached a decision that there had to be a date certain for them to fully assume responsibilities.
Of course, there is some risk involved with this. There is no military that is as proficient as ours. We can do things that no other military can do. But Afghanistan has reached a point it takes full responsibility for itself. We have other security concerns in the world and we can’t stay in Afghanistan forever. Now the question out there is not the end of combat operations, but whether the United States will maintain a military presence at all in Afghanistan after 2014, because there are other missions that the president thinks are important. We would not fight with them but continue to train and mentor them. There might be a requirement to keep additional forces there for counterterrorist missions.
TC: What changes do you foresee with the upcoming Afghan presidential election?
KE: The election takes place next month, in early April. But there is a chance that no one candidate—there are 10 running right now—will get more than 50 percent of the votes. By the Afghan constitution, that means you need a run-off and [need to reschedule the election]. It’s difficult to conduct elections in the country because it’s costly—logistics are not very robust there—and there is an insurgency being fought. So we probably have to get through a second round and then how long will it take for a new president to be elected? Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and we’re on a timeline right now, where we said that if we don’t get an agreement by the end of December of this year, we are going to pull our forces out. Clearly, our military plans need advance planning time. We can’t just decide on the 30th of December what we need to do.
TC: Back in 2010, after the article in Rolling Stone was published, relations between you and General McChrystal became strained. What exactly happened and how are things now?
KE: The stakes were extreme for our country, for [President Obama], and for the different organizations supporting the resident’s mission in Afghanistan. I think that the president took best advice from people—myself excluded—who are extraordinarily capable and are going into different responsibilities. They are, of course, going to have their own views. They are getting paid for their best advice. They are not getting paid to agree with each other. And in the case of reviewing the strategy for Afghanistan, that’s exactly what happened. After the president made a decision of what strategy to proceed with, I think our leaders in Afghanistan—including myself—and the military commander did get behind the president’s mission, as we were expected to cooperate and pull together as a team. So, I also believe that our relations were good.
TC: You are known as one of the more vocal people when it comes to discussing the Karzai regime. You were always very clear about what you wanted to do. Did it ever bother you when someone was trying to prevent you from being out there?
KE: The world of diplomacy pays you to continue that diplomacy through persuasion and arm-twisting, to continue America’s international policy. That has to be the public persona of your effort. It will also shape your personal interaction with the president of a nation that you’re dealing with. You don’t conduct your diplomacy publicly. One of the frustrations for our soldiers and diplomats is that what we consider private correspondence goes through a system that is very porous. So many written pieces cover conversations that we thought were going to remain private go into the public domain and you pay a penalty for that.
TC: One last question. You’ve had such a great career. Is there any wish that remains unfulfilled?
KE: President Obama gave a speech to the United States Military Academy in December 2009 to announce his decision to surge. He talked about the limits that we would try to accomplish in Afghanistan and in explaining those limits he talked about the limits to get too ambitious in the area of nation building. One of the things that I enjoy immensely about being at Stanford right now is that I have an opportunity to meet students and to talk about issues related to national security. I’ve spent many years overseas and now I’ve reached a point where I want to share the skills and experiences that I have with the younger generation.