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U.S. ambassador warns against Afghanistan troop buildup

In classified cables, he warns that Hamid Karzai's government is too corrupt and ineffective, senior officials say. The envoy's dissent comes as President Obama is poised to announce his decision.

November 12, 2009|Paul Richter

WASHINGTON — In an unexpected dissent at a critical moment, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan has warned in classified cables against any further buildup of American forces in the country, senior U.S. officials said Wednesday.

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, a retired Army general and former commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, objected in two cables delivered to the State Department saying that additional troops would be unwise because of the corruption and ineffectiveness of the Afghan government, the officials said.

The advice in the cables, sent last week, comes as most signs are suggesting that President Obama soon will announce plans to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan in hopes of turning the tide against militants.

It also pits Eikenberry against a former military colleague, Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the current commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, who has reportedly told Obama that more than 40,000 troops are needed if the country is to be stabilized.

Eikenberry's advice, in formal communications sent to Washington, came to light on a day when Obama met with his top national security advisors in what may have been a pivotal meeting to discuss the policy makeover. The group is weighing four options that would add 10,000 to 40,000 U.S. troops to the 68,000 already there.

Obama leaves today on a trip to Asia that will take him away from the policy debate for more than a week. He is widely expected to announce his decision on strategy and troops when he returns.

McChrystal aims to protect the Afghan population in hopes of winning its support in the battle against Islamic extremism. But the strategy postulates that allied forces won't succeed in their mission unless the Afghan government is honest and effective.

The fraud-tainted Aug. 20 presidential election has sharpened U.S. and European concerns about the Afghan government. In recent days, American and European officials have warned that President Hamid Karzai must change his ways for the costly international effort to succeed.

Last week, Obama urged Karzai to get serious about eradicating corruption and developing a stable government. In a phone call during which Obama congratulated Karzai after Afghan officials canceled a runoff election and declared Karzai the winner of a new five-year term, the U.S. president emphasized that it was time for a new chapter in Afghanistan's governance, security and internal and international relations.

Eikenberry, who assumed his duties in the spring, is known to have substantial reservations about Karzai's leadership style and reliability as an American ally. During the summer election campaign, he made a point of meeting with other candidates and encouraged their participation in the contest.

After the vote, Eikenberry -- together with Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- participated in a series of contentious closed-door meetings with Karzai, insisting that he go along with the findings of a United Nations-backed fraud-auditing panel's finding that a runoff was necessary.

The second round of voting did not take place because Karzai's main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out.

To a greater extent than other senior Western representatives, such as Kai Eide, the Norwegian who heads the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Eikenberry has been firm and explicit in his warnings to Karzai that corruption and inefficiency must be addressed urgently in his new term. The former general's relations with the Afghan leader have sometimes been tense as a result.

After the meeting Wednesday, a senior administration official said Obama remained concerned about the reliability of the administration's Afghan partners.

"The president believes that we need to make clear to the Afghan government that our commitment is not open ended," the official said. "After years of substantial investments by the American people, governance in Afghanistan must improve in a reasonable period of time."

Several senior civilian officials, including Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, have privately expressed reservations about a further troop buildup. But few senior military officials have lined up among the doubters, giving Eikenberry's reported statement special impact.

Eikenberry oversaw the Afghan military mission in 2006 and 2007. He was sworn in as ambassador in April after retiring from the military.

Officials would not discuss the details of Eikenberry's reasons for opposing a troop increase.

During his confirmation hearing as ambassador in March, Eikenberry warned that without strengthening the government and reducing corruption, progress in Afghanistan would be difficult to achieve. He also criticized what he called an inadequate job by U.S. officials and their allies in providing the civilian expertise needed to improve the government and develop the Afghan economy.

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