Whatever Happened to the Civilian Surge in Afghanistan?

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Massoud Hossaini / AP

Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, center, and General David Petraeus arrive at a funeral for Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai's brother in Kabul on July 15, 2011

A dense cloud of brown dust billowed up as a pair of CH-53 Super Stallions landed in a cornfield next to Patrol Base Jaker. U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry stepped out of the swirl wearing a dress shirt, but no body armor or helmet in a move meant to impress upon a U.S. network TV crew the improved safety in Helmand province's Nawa district. The ambassador took a turn around the bazaar, trailed by two dozen heavily armed Marines and almost as many deputy ambassadors and civilian advisers. That was September 2009, when Eikenberry was flaunting his role as the top U.S. civilian in Afghanistan. Now that Ambassador Ryan Crocker has assumed that role, many are questioning Eikenberry's legacy and what his departure means for Afghanistan — especially for the Nawa bazaar and the civilian advisers.

To Eikenberry at least, that legacy is clear. Before he left Kabul late in July he told the New York Times that he is most proud of helping stand up the Afghan National Army (ANA) and of overseeing the "civilian surge" — a wave of civilian experts meant to bolster the parallel military surge launched there last year. The assertion is astonishing to many observers, given the apparent failure of the civilian surge and the continued high attrition and corruption rates within the ANA. Instead, Eikenberry's time in Afghanistan is likely to be characterized by the leak of classified cables to Washington last November, published in the New York Times.

In the cables, Eikenberry, a retired lieut. general who served two tours in Afghanistan, wrote that, "President [Hamid] Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner," and added that he "continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development."

Eikenberry, who began his ambassadorship in April 2009, outstayed his usefulness once the cables became public, according to most observers interviewed by TIME. The cables were so damaging that the envoy's service can be divided into pre- and post-cable periods. "Eikenberry's biggest problem was that he had come out early, often and strongly in favor of taking a very hard stance with the Karzai government vis-à-vis corruption and the lack of interest in reform. But as soon as the cables become public, Eikenberry was forced to crawl back into his shell and that is where all the momentum and all the power was lost, as far as the U.S. State Department was concerned," says a foreign analyst working in Afghanistan.

But as Eikenberry's influence with Karzai dwindled, there was little leadership on other questions. "When confronted with really difficult issues, such as the Karzai re-election, Eikenberry didn't show up on the map. With the parliamentary elections, the parliamentary meltdown, the Kabul Bank crisis and corruption — where was he? Where are our policies on counternarcotics, on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the refuge for Taliban fighters in Pakistan and on Taliban peace talks?" asks another foreign analyst.

Other observers contend Eikenberry did the best he could given the "mixed signals from D.C." and "the fact that U.S. strategy in Afghanistan seems to be nothing more than a basket full of tactics and misguided public interventions of guys like [Vice President Joe] Biden," says Mike Capstick, a retired colonel in the Canadian army and an analyst with experience in Afghanistan.

But to some Afghans, Eikenberry's criticism of the Afghan President may have done more harm than good. "Eikenberry did more damage to Karzai's reputation than anybody alive," says Prince Abdul Ali Seraj, head of the National Council for Dialogue with Tribes of Afghanistan. "His continuous statements about how bad Karzai was, ridiculed him in the eyes of his people and made the people lose trust in him."

The repeated censures aside, an even larger problem is a structural one within the U.S. civilian agencies and between them and the U.S. military — a situation where it remains unclear who is officially in charge of the U.S. presence here. Though the relationship has been dominated by the military, there are no clear guidelines. The embassy's position has been further weakened by turf battles within the Kabul embassy over which agency controls what. "The entire civilian side of the international effort remains incoherent and uncoordinated. Fixing the internal disconnects in the embassy should be Job One, followed by an effort to bring all of the international players together. Step 1: ensure that there is only one U.S. ambassador and let agencies like USAID do their jobs," says Capstick.

Yet in the one area in which it was expressly expected that Eikenberry would take a firm lead — in the vaunted "civilian surge" meant to push into the field thousands of civilian experts in areas ranging from governance to agriculture, observers are unanimous. "The whole notion of a civilian surge was stillborn at the outset," says Doug MacGregor, a retired colonel who is a leading critic of counterinsurgency theory.

"The insurgency in Afghanistan is primarily a rural one, and it is largely being fought in the river valleys, vineyards and mountains of rural Afghanistan — not the cities," says Seth Jones, an analyst at the Rand Corp. and professor at Georgetown University. "Unfortunately, the State Department has had difficulty deploying individuals to many of these areas, either because it is viewed as too dangerous or because diplomats won't go. I do not believe the civilian surge has had a significant impact on counterinsurgency efforts, though State Department officials have certainly been helpful working with central government officials in Kabul," Jones tells TIME.

Overshadowed and overpowered by the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, hobbled by a reduced ability to influence Karzai and a divided embassy, lacking a coherent policy on a number of issues and the civilian surge, and receiving mixed signals from the White House, Eikenberry's difficult time as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan is unlikely to be viewed as a success. Now, Ambassador Crocker is in a race against the clock to repair the damage both inside his embassy and with the U.S. military, and with the Karzai government ahead of the scheduled 2014 withdrawal.