Departing U.S. Envoy Sees Progress in Afghanistan, and Pitfalls Aheadhttp://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/05/world/asia/05afghanistan.html?ref=world
KABUL, Afghanistan — When Karl W. Eikenberry’s father knew he had only a few months left to live, he told his son his greatest regret was that he would not be around to see what happened next.
That is how Mr. Eikenberry says he feels now, as he prepares to step down as the American ambassador to Afghanistan, after nearly a decade of working here, as a general during two tours, as a NATO official and for the past two and a half years as ambassador.
“One of the hard parts of leaving is you just don’t know how some of the big things are going to turn out,” said Mr. Eikenberry, quoting his father and drawing the parallel to his own imminent departure.
He will not be the only person to leave with that question: in the same three-week period, two other powerful figures will leave. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commanding general here, will lead the Central Intelligence Agency, and Lt. Gen. David M. Rodriguez, the No. 2 commanding general and the man who has been running the war day to day, will run the United States Army Forces Command, which prepares troops going overseas.
The three have presided over a period when American military and civilian power and spending in Afghanistan were at their zenith, and their departures mark the end of an era.
From an American policy standpoint, the changing of the guard means little, but from the Afghan standpoint, in which a leader’s personality can determine the policy, the triple departure, along with President Obama’s June 22 speech on the withdrawal of troops, has stoked fears of abandonment, especially for Afghans who have depended on the Americans.
“Ambassador Eikenberry and General Petraeus, both of them leaving at the same time, maybe it doesn’t affect the policy, but it affects the morale of the people,” said Fawzia Koofi, a member of Parliament and a strong advocate of women’s rights.
All three men have emphasized that the strategic partnership agreement — now under negotiation — will help guarantee firm American support.
They have said they are “cautiously optimistic” about Afghanistan, in the words of Mr. Eikenberry and General Rodriguez, but they have also made clear that questions loom about the government’s capacity to provide services, about Pakistan’s intentions and about the ability of the relatively inexperienced Afghan security forces to protect the country.
Afghans, by contrast, see a deeply unsettled landscape, where disaster is at least as likely as survival, where the decrease in NATO troops could make the country more vulnerable both to rapacious neighbors and to the Taliban. They see a government unable to accept the rulings of its own institutions in the case of elections and a dangerous standoff with the International Monetary Fund over how to overcome the paralyzing fraud at Kabul Bank, the nation’s largest financial institution.
“The announcement of a significant drawdown and discussion of 2014 makes people afraid,” said Ahmad Nader Nadery of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“By 2014, all security responsibility will be in Afghan hands, so the leverage of the Taliban and support for the Taliban will be much more, and they will either take over or set terms that the government will have to listen to,” he said. “People are thinking how to prevent a total collapse,” Mr. Nadery added.
Mr. Eikenberry, whose career here has tracked the trajectory of the war, from the almost heady optimism of the early days after the Taliban’s fall to the recent foreboding that large portions of the country were at risk of again falling under Taliban influence, spoke enthusiastically about the United States’ efforts, but did not try to predict the future.
The ambassador gave a rare on-the-record interview to The New York Times last week.
He warned that the current political impasse over Parliament could have long-term consequences for Afghanistan’s future as a democracy and conveyed his sense that with the exception of the Afghan Army, which many Afghans already regard highly, there were profound questions about whether Afghan institutions would survive.
Ten days ago, a special court convened by President Hamid Karzai, which election officials and the international community say is illegal, ordered nearly a fourth of the seats in Parliament overturned. Parliament has responded by voting to censure judicial officials.
“Whenever the dust settles, it has to be a parliament that is accepted by the Afghan people,” Mr. Eikenberry said.
The Kabul Bank crisis is another major concern, said international advisers, including the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, because the International Monetary Fund has refused to renew its main credit program for Afghanistan, effectively halting aid from several major donors. Afghan efforts to reach an agreement with the monetary fund have fallen short. Longer-term economic issues are also looming.
An estimated 95 percent of the country’s economic activity is derived from foreign aid and Western military expenditures, and Mr. Eikenberry warned of an economic collapse in Afghanistan as donors begin to reduce their spending here.
This year foreign aid from the United States peaked at $4 billion, but in the next fiscal year only $2.5 billion is planned for Afghanistan. The annual military budget now stands at nearly $120 billion and includes large amounts for development projects, more than $600 million in trucking contracts for Afghans to supply the NATO troops and nearly $12 billion annually to pay for Afghanistan’s security forces.
“We are concerned there could be an economic recession or recessionary effects will be felt in 2013 and 2014,” Mr. Eikenberry said.
General Rodriguez, who made his farewell tour of eastern Afghanistan last week with stops in Paktika and Ghazni and at Bagram Air Base, is acutely aware of the amount of money and jobs the military funnels into the Afghan economy and said he, too, was concerned about how to cement gains.
“We have to figure out how to build durability,” he said. “Progress has to improve exponentially.” The general added, “That is clearly doable.”
The American ambassador said he was departing with particular pride in two achievements. “I’ll leave here with the moniker of being the father of the Afghan Army, and for me that’s a very big deal because it’s one of the few institutions here in the state that’s looked at as all national and credible.”
“The second major achievement is having led the civilian surge,” he said, referring to the State Department’s increase in diplomats to Afghanistan to 1,200 from 325; 400 of them are in the provinces working on reconstruction.
“I think on our watch we did make a difference.”