Secret cables reveal Afghanistan advice Obama ignored
Back in November, reports leaked that US Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry had sent secret cables to the State Department expressing his concerns about sending additional troops to Afghanistan and the overall emphasis on counterinsurgency in the approach to the conflict there. Today, the New York Times has published the secret cables, and they reveal holes in the administration’s logic that many opposed to the escalation have surfaced, and unfortunately may prove to be all too prescient.
In the first cable, Eikenberry lays out his main concerns with the possibility of sending additional troops [emphasis mine]:
But I am concerned that we underestimate the risks of this expansion of our mission and that we have not fully studied every alternative. The proposed troop increase will bring vastly increased costs and an indefinite, large-scale U.S. military role in Afghanistan, generating the need for yet-more civilians. An increased U.S. and foreign role in security and governance will increase Afghan dependency, at least in the near-term, and it will deepen the military involvement in a mission that most agree cannot be won solely by military means. Further, it will run counter to our strategic purposes of Afghanizing and civilianizing government functions here.
Perhaps the charts we have all seen showing the U.S. presence rising and then dropping off in coming years in a bell curve will prove accurate. It is more likely, however, that these forecasts are imprecise and optimistic. In that case, sending additional forces will delay the day when Afghans will take over, and make it difficult, if not impossible, to bring our people home on a reasonable timetable. Moreover, none of these charts displays dollar costs. Acknowledgement of the astronomical costs might illustrate the greater desirability of civilian alternatives now dismissed as too costly or not feasible.
While I and many others have praised the fact that President Obama spent considerable time deliberating this decision to send additional troops, Eikenberry’s cables confirm that the debate was narrow and did not fully vet nonmilitary alternatives that could ultimately prove more effective and less costly in lives and dollars. It is truly bizarre, as the president prepares to ask Congress for $33 billion for the troop increase and $708 billion for the wars and other military expenses, to think that some in the administration were dismissing civilian alternatives as “too costly.”
Eikenberry goes on to express his concerns about Hamid Karzai’s role in the US strategy:
With his re-election, Karzai will remain Afghanistan’s dominant political actor. We hope we can move him toward taking firm control of his country and guiding its future. But sending more combat forces will only strengthen his misconceptions about why we are here. Before any troop announcement, we should first have a high-level dialogue with Karzai and his new government to explain our goals and obtain agreement on what we expect from them. Even with such an understanding, it strains credulity to expect Karzai to change fundamentally this late in his life and in our relationship.
Eikenberry then points out that exorbitant military costs are ignored, while relatively small requests for development money are closely scrutinized and denied:
The proposed strategy may not be cost-effective. Sending additional combat brigades will require tens of billions of dollars annually for years to come, costs not detailed in DOD charts. Yet an Embassy request this summer for a $2.5 billion increase in our budget for development and governance was analyzed and debated in great detail, only to be rejected. If more troops are sent to Afghanistan, we should revisit decisions about our development funding.
In particular, we should weigh whether a relatively small additional investment in programs for development and government would yield results that, if not as visible as those from sending more troops, would move us closer to achieving our goals at far lesser cost and risk, both in lives and dollars. Accelerating our work on signature projects to deliver greater access to electricity, water, and education could have a high payoff in stability over the long term. With a greatly stepped-up development effort we could be in a position at some point to call off further troop deployments, as Afghans begin to see their lives improving and their needs addressed.
It’s important to remember that this recommendation to shift emphasis from military to civilian work is coming from a former military officer who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and can speak knowledgeably from both sides of this debate.
In his second cable, sent on November 9th, Eikenberry recommends opening up a larger strategic conversation and taking more time before deciding to send additional troops:
I now propose that the White House commission a deliberate process to lay out the range of strategic options on Afghanistan and Pakistan, broadening the analysis beyond military counterinsurgency doctrine.
There are three purposes for doing so:
First, to make sure that we have tested every assumption behind the Afghan-focused military counterinsurgency proposal;
Second, to examine non-military alternatives or companion requirements to a major troop increase;
Third, to develop U.S. political understanding and support, as well as Afghan and allied public commitment…
…We have not yet conducted a comprehensive, interdisciplinary analysis of all our strategic options. Nor have we brought all the real-world variables to bear in testing the proposed counterinsurgency plan.
You can read the full cables here. It is painful to think about how much better the US’s Afghanistan policy could have been had the administration taken Eikenberry’s advice seriously, rather than getting further entrenched in a failing military strategy that will surely result in greater loss of life and squandering of our tax dollars.
Eikenberry did not comment on the cables, but an embassy spokeswoman told the Times, “We stand by what we provided during the review process, which got us to the clear strategy we’re now implementing, that the ambassador unequivocally supports.” It’s hard to imagine that Eikenberry can truly back the current strategy considering that few if any of his concerns have been met. We can only hope that he continues to raise these concerns within the administration behind closed doors, and take seriously our responsibility to raise them publicly and to our representatives in Congress.