Cables show U.S. officials' sense of futility in Afghanistan

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 3, 2010; A14

Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables covering recent years of Afghanistan policy portray an unremittingly bleak landscape in which U.S. officials have alternately cajoled and pressured an erratic Afghan president, been repeatedly exasperated by corruption and seemed destined to repeat the past.

"What does it take to break out of the cycle of 'clear and clear again' to achieve sustained success in an area of persistent insurgency?" U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry lamented in a June 2009 cable to Washington about repeated coalition offensives followed by Taliban resurgence in an area north of Kabul. The document was among dozens released to news organizations by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

"No matter how effective military performance may be, the insurgents will readily fill any vacuums of governance, and without political competence, lasting [counterinsurgency] success . . . will remain one more operation away," Eikenberry concluded in an assessment that echoes concerns expressed over the current coalition offensive in the southern province of Kandahar.

This spring, when Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates visited a town in Helmand province, site of a major Marine offensive this year, aides noted that his walk through the marketplace and chats with local residents would have been "unthinkable" barely six months earlier. In November 2008, U.S. Embassy officials reported a similar walk, in a nearby town, by then-British Foreign Secretary David Miliband.

"A large number of local elders turned out," the report noted, and Miliband "bought locally produced pomegranates .. . . None of this would have been possible only a few months ago."

While the overall impression afforded by the selectively released cables differed little from news reports about the Afghanistan war, the publication of unvarnished diplomatic assessments is likely to prove problematic for the Obama administration as it completes a new review of its war strategy this month. Administration and military officials have described recent progress throughout Afghanistan and indicated they see little need to change the strategy President Obama put in place a year ago with the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander, has dismissed reports of problems, particularly in Kandahar, saying that there has been a shift in momentum in favor of the coalition that has not yet been reflected in official reporting from the field.

But other officials, as well as intelligence reports from the region, have raised concerns about Taliban resilience and a worrying failure to translate military successes into improvements in governance in Kandahar. The criticism is similar to that voiced by Eikenberry regarding another part of the country in his June 2009 cable.

WikiLeaks began releasing State Department cables from throughout the world last weekend. Many of the Afghanistan documents made public Thursday, some from the George W. Bush administration but most since Obama's inauguration nearly two years ago, recounted meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other government officials from which U.S. officials emerged with the diplomatic version of a headache.

Many released earlier in the week reflected similar doubts arising in conversations between U.S. officials and leaders in other capitals. NATO's then-secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, wondered in a June 2008 cable which Karzai would attend an upcoming European conference on international aid to Afghanistan, "the erratic Pashtun politician or the rational national leader?"

A year later, as Karzai prepared to run for reelection, Eikenberry reported that the Afghan president "appeared to believe conspiracy theories that the U.S. was working with the Iranians to unseat him in presidential elections." In four meetings he held with Karzai during the first week in July 2009, Eikenberry wrote, "two contrasting portraits emerge."

"The first is of a paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation-building and overly self-conscious that his time in the spotlight of glowing reviews from the international community has passed. The other is that of an ever-shrewd politician who sees himself as a nationalist hero who can save the country from being divided" by those running against him.

In the tumultuous period before and after the inconclusive August 2009 election, Karzai repeatedly accused the administration of both supporting and funding his opponents. "I pushed back strongly on this misinformation," Eikenberry reported. "I then asked Karzai if he took me at my word on this issue," he wrote. "Karzai, perhaps not wanting to back down in front of his advisers, said he did not. He said I should 'consult my buddies' on this issue," apparently referring to the other presidential candidates.

As the White House was beginning to formulate the new strategy announced late last year, Eikenberry - in cables that were previously leaked and were not included in the latest cache of documents - cautioned that Karzai was not an "adequate strategic partner" and could not carry out the plans the administration was considering.

This February, when the most recent cables are dated, embassy officials reported some of Karzai's most trusted aides had raised questions about him. In a cable describing a Feb. 24 meeting with Karzai chief of staff Omar Daudzai, the official "alluded elliptically to his dinner meeting the previous evening with [then-]Minister of Interior [Hanif] Atmar and other supporters of the President who shared 'serious concerns' about Karzai's actions" regarding the holding of upcoming parliamentary elections.

When Eikenberry visited the next day with Finance Minister Umar Zakhilwal, the minister, "apparently echoing Daudzai . . . went on to speak candidly about Karzai, saying that he was an 'extremely weak man' who did not listen to facts but was instead easily swayed by anyone who came to him to report even the most bizarre stories of plots against him. Whenever this happened, Karzai would immediately judge the person to be loyal and would reward him."

Other documents made public Thursday include a Dec. 16, 2009, cable recounting a meeting between Karzai and his senior national security aides and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in which Mullen resisted Afghan entreaties for more "sophisticated military equipment" and "heavy weapons." Their domestic security tasks, Mullen gently noted, did not require such weaponry.

While published accounts of Obama's decision-making during the late 2009 strategy review have emphasized Pentagon resistance to the July 2011 date he set to begin a U.S. troop withdrawal, Mullen is quoted as telling the Afghans that "the 2011 drawdown date was not a political decision, but rather a U.S. military recommendation."

At the same meeting, which took place as the administration was pressing other NATO countries to send more troops to Afghanistan, Karzai reportedly noted that "if the commitments are small contingents from many nations, it would be more of a 'headache,' " Eikenberry wrote. "He quipped that if these countries only announced their plan to deploy additional troops, without actually sending them, it would be easier."

Staff writer Rajiv Chandrasekaran contributed to this report.

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