US President Barack Obama faced calls on Thursday to follow the sacking of his commander in the Afghan war with a shake-up of the diplomatic team, amid strained military-civilian relations.
A day after General Stanley McChrystal was forced to step down from the Kabul command, some lawmakers and commentators argued for the replacement of US civilian envoys, saying it would shore up ties with the Afghan government and put an end to damaging in-fighting within the administration.
McChrystal’s disdainful remarks to a magazine about the US envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, and the US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, led to his abrupt exit, but also underlined signs of a toxic relationship between the military commander and his civilian counterparts.
“The civilian side is, in my view, completely dysfunctional,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Wednesday.
“I would urge the president to look at this as a chance to put new people on the ground without old baggage. And if we don’t change quickly, we’re going to lose a war we can’t afford to lose,” he said.
Graham was one of three hawkish senators who quickly demanded a clean sweep, saying too much was at stake to allow turf wars to drag on.
Senator John McCain on Thursday praised the appointment of General David Petraeus to take over in Kabul, but told ABC television “we also need a new team over there as well — perhaps at the embassy and other areas.”
Both Holbrooke and Eikenberry have taken a tough line towards Afghan President Hamid Karzai over allegations of widespread government corruption, and some critics say they have lost influence with Kabul as a result.
“Neither Holbrooke nor Eikenberry has a functional working relationship with President Karzai — Holbrooke because of his early efforts to find a replacement for Karzai during the Afghan election, and Eikenberry because of leaked cables in which he stated that he did not believe Karzai to be an adequate partner,” commentator Alexander Benard wrote on the website of the respected National Review magazine.
“So Eikenberry and Holbrooke no longer have any sway over Karzai, and they are not capable of effectively serving as intermediaries between him and President Obama.”
There was no immediate sign from the White House that Obama was prepared to relieve top civilians shaping Afghan policy. But the US president did issue a stern warning Wednesday against any more back-biting on his Afghan team.
Skeptics of the US-led war in Afghanistan say the military has been given too prominent a role in diplomacy, and that the top US civilians have pinpointed the weak link in Washington’s strategy — the Kabul government.
Holbrooke has conveyed a “tough love” message to Karzai and Eikenberry has rightfully questioned if the Afghan leader was a reliable partner, Peter Galbraith, the former deputy head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, told The Cable blog.
But when the Obama administration chose to take a less confrontational approach to Karzai in recent months, Holbrooke and Eikenberry were sidelined, said Galbraith.
“Unfortunately, as part of his love offensive, Obama made a mistake in letting Karzai choose his interlocutor,” said Galbraith, who was fired from his UN post after alleging his superiors covered up electoral fraud in the presidential polls last year.
Galbraith echoed comments from some on the left that the US government should rely on its diplomats and not generals to communicate its policies.
“The president needs to make clear that it is the ambassador that speaks for the US and the commanding general is not the one who is making US policy.”
The following YouTube video is from ABC’s ‘Good Morning America’ show, originally airing Thurs., June 24, 2010: