As promised in my last post, Obama Vindicates Bush, McCain and Palin on Afghanistan, this post is a comparison of the Iraqi and Afghan troop surges, with some further analysis.
United States President Barak Obama probably is making the right decision to send more troops to Afghanistan, as his generals have recommended. He had already sent more troops earlier this year, after former U.S. President George W. Bush had begun a planned troop surge for that country while simultaneously drawing down American forces in Iraq.
I have long considered the battle for Afghanistan in the War on Terrorism a greater challenge than the battle of Iraq. Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain makes it more difficult than Iraq not only because of the difficulty of transporting personnel and equipment, but because of the defensive positions it affords, as well as the escape routes it provides. Indeed, the mountainous Afghan border with Pakistan has proven the greatest challenge to American led forces and their Afghan allies, as the Taliban and al-Qaeda escape across the border into Pakistan. There, they find safe haven in tribal areas where the Pakistani national government exerts little or no control.
Afghanistan is even more tribal than Iraq, with less ethnic cohesion. While Iraq has two main ethnic groups, Arabs and Kurds, Afghanistan is inhabited mainly by Pashtun, Tajiks, Hazara, and Uzbeks. There are small minorities of Turkmen in both states, especially the latter, but Afghanistan also has several other minorities, such as Baluchi and Nuristani. Both states are overwhelmingly Muslim, with both the Sunni and Shia branches represented, although Iraq has a small Christian minority (both Orthodox and Catholic). However, Iraq has two major languages, Arabic and Kurdish, while Afghanistan has several, as well as over 30 minority languages. These factors, combined with its mountainous terrain, make Afghanistan difficult to centrally administer.
Two other advantages that Iraq has over Afghanistan is its relative wealth compared to Afghanistan’s poverty. Iraq is rich in oil, but the land that contains ancient Mesopotamia is also the leading world producer of dates, for example. Afghanistan is only the leading world producer of opium, from which heroin is derived, a crop that must be eradicated. Iraq, as the Cradle of Civilization, is a potential tourist attraction. Afghanistan has little to draw tourism. In short, Iraq can be economically self-sufficient much sooner than Afghanistan.
I note how Afghanistan presents a more difficult challenge for the U.S. than Iraq because critics of the Liberation of Iraq exaggerated its difficulty, which they argued, suggested the war was imprudent, while they continued to cite the Liberation of Afghanistan as “the good war.” Despite having to defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, in addition to the Baathists, the quick success of the surge in Iraq, in contrast to the protracted conflict in Afghanistan, refutes this argument.
As in Iraq, the Afghan troop surge will be only the military component of an overall counterterrorist strategy that includes the acceleration of the training of Afghan security forces (army and police), as well as various reconstruction and infrastructure projects to improve the lives of Afghans and strengthen state control – at least at the provincial level – after securing and holding areas cleared of the Taliban, al Qaeda and other terrorists. This strategy, although similar to the one that succeeded in Iraq, will have to be tailored to the particular challenges in Afghanistan.
Obama expressed that the focus of the troop surge will be on al-Qaeda. However there are few al-Qaeda left there. The danger is that their Taliban allies would once again take power and provide safe haven to the terrorist organization (See also my post Victory in Afghanistan is Critical). The primary focus must be on defeating the Taliban.
It was imprudent for Obama to announce the beginning of the withdrawal of American forces by a date certain. His equivocation seems to send the message to American troops, U.S. allies and enemies alike that the Commander in Chief lacks the resolve to do what it takes to defend the United States. Obama avoided the temptation to state how many troops would withdraw or how long it would take for a phased withdrawal, declaring that decisions about the withdrawal would be based upon “conditions on the ground,” as Bush used to state.
Alas, Obama cannot bring himself to state victory as a goal, only “ending” the war successfully, which only further undermines American and Afghan morale, while bolstering that of the enemy. For now, however, after taking months to make his decision, Obama’s Afghan troop surge will have a favorable impact on morale. But Obama’s weakness reflected in his announcement of his intent to withdraw in a little over a year and his avoidance of the word victory, give the enemy enough hope that it is only necessary to kill enough Americans to make the war politically unpopular, so as to force an American withdrawal, as in Vietnam, Lebanon and, most relevantly, in Somalia.
Obama’s contention that the Liberation of Iraq distracted the U.S. from Afghanistan is only half right: it was a distraction, for al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda made a strategic mistake to send forces to Iraq, where they have been routed by the American-led “coalition of the willing,” together with its Iraqi allies. In addition, the Taliban were a spent force by 2007. The Taliban military offensive in Afghanistan was described by the liberal media as responsible for the deaths of thousands of Afghans, but the media failed to explain that it mostly the Taliban who were being killed. It is only since the jihadists have been defeated in Iraq that Afghanistan has flared up again. The other factor is the Pakistani government’s lack of the political wherewithal to defeat the Taliban in Pakistan and to deny them a safe haven there. Furthermore, the idea that the U.S. could not fight simultaneously on two fronts has been proven untrue.
One of the criticisms of the Liberation of Iraq was that the militant Muslims used it to perfect their insurgency tactics, which they can now apply to Afghanistan. Apparently, these critics could not see the opposite side of their argument: the Liberation of Iraq was an opportunity for the U.S. to perfect its counterinsurgency tactics, which it is now applying to Afghanistan.
The American people must support their Commander in Chief and the troops in the battle for Afghanistan, as well as their mission: to deny terrorists a safe haven in Afghanistan. The troop surge and counterterrorism strategy in Iraq is the model that suggests a similar strategy can succeed in Afghanistan, despite the challenges.