Obama picks army general to be ambassador to Afghanistan

Posted in United States , Afghanistan | 02-Feb-09 | Author: Eric Schmitt| Source: International Herald Tribune

Afghan men in Kabul waiting to register to vote.

WASHINGTON: The Obama administration has picked Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, a former top military commander in Afghanistan, to be the next U.S. ambassador to Kabul, an administration official said Thursday.

Tapping a career army officer who will soon retire from the service to fill one of the country's most sensitive diplomatic jobs is a highly unusual choice.

But Afghanistan specialists say that Eikenberry, who served in Afghanistan twice, including an 18-month command tour that ended in 2007, knows the players and issues there well. That is a valuable commodity in a year when the United States will send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan and the country will hold presidential elections.

The administration official spoke anonymously because the appointment had not been made public.

Eikenberry has a track record for spotting problems in Afghanistan early. He sounded some of the first alarms about a resurgent Taliban and the need to keep the country from backsliding into anarchy.

He was also an early and vigorous champion of building up the Afghan Army to combat the Taliban, a top priority for the Obama administration. And the general repeatedly warned that the United States could not prevail in Afghanistan and defeat global terrorism without addressing the havens that fighters with Al Qaeda had established in neighboring Pakistan.

The appointment indicates that Eikenberry has the backing of Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Eikenberry not only has good relations with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, but in his current job as deputy chairman of NATO's military committee in Brussels, he has also developed close ties with European allies that could be useful in coaxing them to offer more support for the Afghan mission. NATO has not met its pledges for combat troops, transport helicopters, military trainers and other support personnel in Afghanistan, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has openly criticized the allies for not fulfilling their promises.

If the Senate approves Eikenberry, it would mean that four of the new administration's most influential voices on Afghanistan policy will be active-duty or retired generals, fueling the concerns of some critics that the Pentagon has too much sway over America's foreign policy.

General David Petraeus, the head of the Central Command, General David McKiernan, the top commander in Afghanistan, and General James Jones, a retired Marine Corps officer who is Obama's national security adviser, are all expected to play important roles in carrying out Afghanistan policy.

Eikenberry, a West Point graduate with master's degrees from Harvard and Stanford, would replace William Wood, who is finishing a two-year tour as America's chief diplomat in Kabul.

Mark Landler contributed reporting from Washington, and Carlotta Gall from Kabul.