Distinguished Ambassador Returns to Stanford

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Professor Karl Eikenberry poses with his wife and President Obama in the Oval Office. (Photo Courtesy: Karl Eikenberry)
Four months ago, Karl Eikenberry served as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. In September, he began his professorial career at Stanford as the Payne Distinguished Lecturer at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. After serving three tours of duty in Afghanistan and leading the 18-month civilian surge to expedite its transition to a sovereign country, Eikenberry has begun a new phase of his life in academia.

The son of a business executive who managed several companies, Eikenberry moved frequently around the Midwest and the South when he was young, before settling in Goldsboro, North Carolina for high school. Eikenberry then attended West Point as a member of the Class of 1973, launching a military career that would last 36 years.

Eikenberry began his illustrious career in the army as an infantry officer in frontline operation assignments related to Europe, Korea, and the Cold War. However, shortly into his time in the army, he began to acquire specialties that would prove vital in the later stages of his military service.

“As I went through my career, at the seven-year point we were given a choice for a second specialty. It would be something different from my mainline infantry specialty,” he stated. “I chose to specialize as a foreign area officer. I had a familiarity with Chinese, so I went to Harvard for a Masters degree in East Asian studies.”

After achieving his Masters, Eikenberry attended Nanjing University in Hong Kong where he received intensive training in Chinese to receive his interpreters’ certificate. In 1994, he achieved his second Masters degree in Political Science from Stanford.

September 11

The latter stages of Eikenberry’s Army years were heavily influenced by a day that he barely survived: September 11, 2001.

“On September 11, life changed dramatically for all Americans. In particular, it changed my life an enormous amount,” said Eikenberry. “I was sitting in my office at the outer part on the third floor of the Pentagon when American Airlines flight 77 ploughed into the building. It literally passed right under my office. Most of the casualties were on the first and second floors.”

Despite avoiding the direct hit, other factors endangered his life.

“The hallway was filled with dense smoke. I was taking in so much smoke and I thought something was odd because I was crawling over something. As I finally got out of the building, the Pentagon collapsed,” said Eikenberry. “We had no cell phone reception, so when I finally got home five hours later, I had an emotional reunion with my wife, Ching.”

War on Terror

Eikenberry devoted most of the next ten years of his life to the resulting war in Afghanistan.

“In 2002, Secretary Rumsfeld selected me as lieutenant general to go into Afghanistan. I was chief of the office of military cooperation. My job was to help get the new Afghan army on its feet, coordinate police efforts, and working in counternarcotics,” said Eikenberry. He spent much of the next nine years in Kabul.

One of the most significant accomplishments of his pre-Stanford career, leading the civilian surge, did not occur in a military uniform. Because he could not serve as the ambassador to Afghanistan while officially still in the army, he retired and took on his new position within a 24-hour span.

“I got a call after Obama was elected, and Mrs. Clinton asked if I would go to Afghanistan, not as a general, but to do service,” said Eikenberry. “In one amazing day in Washington, I had my military retirement ceremony in uniform, and then 24 hours later I was sworn in as ambassador wearing a coat and tie.”

Obama ordered the civilian surge in order to eventually allow Afghanistan to operate on its own. The end of American intervention in Afghanistan depends on the viability of its government, law enforcement, and economy. Eikenberry led the efforts as the military ambassador to Afghanistan.

“No war ends with a bullet being fired,” Eikenberry said. “[American] Civilians had [the] critical role that would help Afghans improve the government, grow the economy, and promote reconciliation.

He continued, “When I became ambassador, there were 325 civilians on the ground. When I left, there were 1200, from 18 different departments. The military was the shield, the civilians the force.”

According to him, the versatility and efficiency of the civilians’ work lends itself to the quantity of workers and variety of agencies from which they came.

“We needed a very complete team with diverse skills,” said Eikenberry. “We had many employees from USAID, the FBI, the drug enforcement administration, the federal aviation administration, and the department of justice training among others. There were specialists developing energy infrastructure, transportation, education, and helping build a counter-narcotic strike force. Employees from the department of transportation helped build the Afghan ministry. The real intent behind the surge was to help Afghans with comprehensive growth of government and economy.”

Reflecting on his time working in Afghanistan and under President Obama, Eikenberry is pleased with the results of the surge.

“The surge accomplished most of the objectives we set for ourselves. The Taliban was reversed and special forces operations conducted throughout the surge to put pressure on Afghan leadership was highly effective,” said Eikenberry.

Of course, Eikenberry also pointed out that it will be difficult to maintain a complex and just political system given that the Afghan insurgents enjoy a sanctuary in Pakistan. Also, although the Afghan economy improved significantly during the surge, and the government is able to generate in revenue more than half of the money taken in from foreign states, it is difficult to know whether the economy will continue to improve. Nevertheless, Eikenberry lauds the military and political leadership behind the surge effort.

“I think President Obama’s management of an extraordinarily complex security challenge in Afghanistan and Pakistan has been excellent. He’s been strategic, he’s been decisive, and every step of the way he’s kept America’s security interest at the center of his thinking,” said Eikenberry.

Back at Stanford

Although Eikenberry will never completely shut the door to his military past, he looks forward to the next phase of his life. When offered the position to teach at Stanford, he did not have to deliberate for very long.

“When you leave the military, it’s called retirement from the military. It’s an interesting expression. You have served for many years, but because it’s a young man’s game, there’s a lot more you can do in life,” said Eikenberry. “When the possibility of returning to Stanford came up, I had a brief discussion with my wife, and I wanted to come back.” Jokingly, he added, “I don’t mind the weather, and being a college football fan, it’s a great year to come back.”

Eikenberry sees a strong link between his military career and his desire to teach.

“Anybody who enjoys being a military officer or an ambassador has to enjoy teaching and mentoring. Teaching at Stanford gives me the opportunity to do this and share experiences with students about my military experience,” said Eikenberry.

Given the many awards and honors, and the fascinating pictures from all of his tours of duty that adorn his office in Encina Commons, Eikenberry has many stories worth telling. Both graduate and undergraduate students in International Studies may have the opportunity to hear his lectures. He holds Stanford students in high regard.

“While I was here getting my Masters, I gained extraordinary respect for Stanford as an institution—it has high academic standards, an emphasis on critical thinking, and does a great job for preparing young people to become responsible citizens,” he stated. “The climate here helps mold young students into very good citizens that can make big contributions to the country.”

Although his government work is over for now, it will still have a strong impact on his future goals. He will work to establish the significance of his career, through pen and paper, as its legacy begins to be defined.

“Here I mainly plan to reflect on my experiences in uniform overall, not only in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I would like to write and teach about U.S. foreign policy and security strategy,” said Eikenberry.

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