U.S. Envoy To Afghanistan Has Seen War Up Close

U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry i i

Karl Eikenberry is a former Army lieutenant general chosen by President Obama as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Eikenberry served two tours of duty in the war in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban, and now serves as America's top diplomat in the troubled country. David Gilkey/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Gilkey/NPR
U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry

Karl Eikenberry is a former Army lieutenant general chosen by President Obama as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Eikenberry served two tours of duty in the war in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban, and now serves as America's top diplomat in the troubled country.

David Gilkey/NPR

The new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan is a retired Army general who used to be the top military commander in that country.

Karl Eikenberry, a soldier turned diplomat, took over earlier this month at the heavily fortified American embassy in Kabul at a critical moment: In early May, American warplanes targeting Taliban forces killed dozens — and perhaps many more — Afghan civilians in Farah province.

Eikenberry strides into his office dressed in a gray suit, yellow power tie and lapel pin with crossed Afghan and American flags. Just two years ago, he wore the uniform of a three-star general.

In his first interview since becoming the top U.S. diplomat in Afghanistan, Eikenberry told NPR that his change of clothes — and roles — has caused some confusion among Afghans.

"This first couple of weeks, it's been, 'General ... Sorry, ambassador.' Then, some are saying ambassador-general," he says.

His first mission was a tough one. He traveled with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to the site of a battle with Taliban fighters earlier this month where U.S. aircraft had killed Afghan civilians. The Karzai government says 140 civilians died in those bombings at the village of Bala Buluk. The U.S. places the number at about 30.

The true death toll may never be known.

A Pledge To Reduce Civilian Casualties

Eikenberry addressed a gathering of tribal elders during the visit. "The United States will work tirelessly with your government, with your army and with your police to find ways to reduce the price paid by civilians and to avoid tragedies like has occurred recently at Bala Buluk," he told them.

Meanwhile, Eikenberry is being tugged between the needs of his old comrades in uniform and his role as a diplomat.

Karzai says he wants a halt to all American airstrikes on villages and an end to night operations.

That makes little sense to Brig. Gen. Ed Reeder, who commands special operations forces in Afghanistan. Some of his operatives were on the ground at Bala Buluk when the sun set and the bombs fell.

"When you operate in the hours of daylight, you put yourself in the same operating plane as the Taliban. He can put markers out and he can kill you," Reeder said.

Eikenberry sides with the military. He dismissed forgoing nighttime operations and admits bombings cannot be halted. They are sometimes necessary to protect American and Afghan forces, he says.

'A Lot Of Hard Work'

As military commander in 2007, Eikenberry wanted more of those Afghan military forces along U.S. troops. But he remembers asking his field commanders the question, "If you had a choice right now of getting 100 more infantrymen or 10 agricultural experts?' Nine times out of 10, the answer would be, '10 agricultural experts.' "

Now, about 21,000 more American soldiers are on the way, and civilian experts are still in short supply. It poses a problem for Eikenberry. How will he solve it?

"With a lot of effort. With a lot of hard work," he says.

There's another problem that Eikenberry must tackle as ambassador that wasn't his responsibility as general: corruption in Afghanistan's governing system.

U.S. officials here say that tribal elders — after listening to Eikenberry offer condolences — launched into complaints about corrupt local officials and a lack of government services.

There are widespread allegations that corruption extends to Karzai's own family.

It is a sensitive question, and the ambassador struggled to find a diplomatic answer.

"The government of Afghanistan owes to its people and, frankly, to the international community which is making enormous sacrifices here, a very serious effort to attack known problems of corruption. Absolutely," he said.

Eikenberry says there is progress in some areas in Afghanistan. More schools are opening. There are more jobs.

But in the south, the Taliban is resurgent.

And Eikenberry has his work cut out for him.