The Future of Afghanistan and US Strategy in Central and South Asia

Portrait of Ambassador Karl Eikenberry
May 8, 2013

With a crowd overflowing in the IGS Library on Tuesday night Ambassador Karl Eikenberry delivered the last spring lecture of the Harold Smith Defense and National Security Series.

Eikenberry, a former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and retired U.S. Army Lt. General, spoke about the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 and what challenges the U.S. faces transitioning out of the country.

Breaking down the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to three time periods where different strategies were used (from 2001-2003, 2004-2008 and 2009 to present), Eikenberry focused on the most recent strategy by President Barack Obama to increase troops in Afghanistan.

“I was picked to be the Ambassador to lead the civilian surge,” Eikenberry said of his appointment in May of 2009. “The civilian teams would go in behind the military and help reconstitute governance in those areas and help improve local economies. In Kabul this meant working at the national level to help strengthen key Afghan ministries.”

“We weren’t trying to do everything,” he said, “although we were trying to do a lot.”

Although the majority of the talk was filled with possible stumbling blocks in Afghanistan and surrounding countries—Eikenberry ended his lecture on a more positive note. Saying that despite the potential threats of Pakistan, the cost of operating in Afghanistan, political unrest in the area and the approaching end to Hamid Karzai’s presidency (“He will be stepping down next year—maybe.”) there was still reason to hope things “might not turn out too badly.” If, Eikenberry said, you measure success as avoiding a civil war. “A low bar,” he added.

What gives Eikenberry hope, he said, is the increasing access to healthcare for people throughout the country, the fact that there are no serious political actors or centrifugal forces in the border countries and that Afghans have a very vivid memory of the wars they’ve been through.

“These people have been brutalized, and traumatized,” Eickenberry said. “I’ve never been to a country like Afghanistan, that’s faced the troubles that they’ve been through,” he added.

The Harold Smith Defense and National Security Series focuses on U.S. defense policies with emphasis on the control and management of nuclear weapons. This is the third year of the series, which brings distinguished experts to campus to speak and engage in conversation about these vital matters. 

Dr. Harold Smith holds the appointment of distinguished resident scholar with the Institute of Governmental Studies at the University of California at Berkeley, where he focuses on the impact of technology on foreign and defense policy.