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The new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan should be familiar with his new assignment. Karl Eikenberry is a retired Army general who used to be the top military commander in Afghanistan. He took charge of the heavily fortified American embassy, and he quickly got a reminder of the complexity of his new job.
Just before Eikenberry arrived, American war planes had killed civilians in an Afghan village. As one of his first acts, the new ambassador visited the village where that incident happened.
Now, he's given his first interview since becoming ambassador to NPR's Tom Bowman.
TOM BOWMAN: Eikenberry strides into his office - gray suit, yellow power tie, a lapel pin with crossed Afghan and American flags. Just two years ago, he wore the uniform of a three-star general. He says a change of clothes — and roles — has caused some confusion among Afghans.
Ambassador KARL EIKENBERRY (U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan): This first couple of weeks, it's been, General, oh, I'm sorry, ambassador. And some are saying ambassador-general.
BOWMAN: But now it's ambassador, and his first mission is a tough one. He traveled with President Hamid Karzai to the site of a battle with Taliban fighters early this month, where a 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 around 30. The true number may never be known.
Eikenberry addressed a gathering of tribal elders. Here's the tape of what he told them.
Ambassador EIKENBERRY: 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.
BOWMAN: To find ways to reduce the price paid by civilians, he said. The question is how to do that. Eikenberry's being tugged between the needs of his old comrades in uniform and his role as a diplomat. Here's one example. Karzai says he wants to halt to all American air strikes on villages and end night operations.
End night operations? That makes little sense to Brigadier General Ed Reeder. He 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.
Brigadier General ED REEDER (Commander, Special Operations Forces): When you operate in the hours of daylight, you put yourself on the same operating plane as the Taliban. He can put markers out and he can kill you.
BOWMAN: Eikenberry sides with the military on this one. He dismissed forgoing night operations and admits bombings can't be halted. Sometimes, he says, it's necessary to protect American and Afghan forces.
As military commander back in 2007, Eikenberry wanted more of those Afghan military forces. And he remembers asking his field commanders this question…
Ambassador EIKENBERRY: 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.
BOWMAN: Now, more American soldiers are on the way, but civilian experts are still in short supply. That's now Eikenberry's problem. How will he solve it?
Ambassador EIKENBERRY: With a lot of effort. With a lot of hard work.
BOWMAN: There's another problem that Eikenberry must tackle as ambassador that wasn't his responsibility as general: it's corruption. American 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 President Karzai's own family. That's a touchy question, and the ambassador struggled to find a diplomatic answer. After two false starts, here's what he had to say.
Ambassador EIKENBERRY: 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.
BOWMAN: Two years ago, General Eikenberry appeared before Congress as commander of allied forces in Afghanistan to assess how the war was going.
This is what you said at the Armed Services Committee.
Ambassador EIKENBERRY: Yeah.
BOWMAN: The key question is, is the government of Afghanistan winning in several areas: corruption, justice, law enforcement, in counter-narcotics. It is not. Is that still true today?
Ambassador EIKENBERRY: It's mixed.
BOWMAN: Eikenberry says there's progress in some areas. More schools are opening. There are more jobs. But in the south, the Taliban is resurgent. Karl Eikenberry, the general-ambassador, has his work cut out for him.
Tom Bowman, NPR, Kabul.
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