Barack Obama was treated with all the pomp of a visiting head of state when he visited Baghdad and talked with Prime Minister Maliki, who recently at least seemed to endorse Obama’s plan to have troops out of Iraq within 16 months. At this point, Obama seems to be winning the debate about Iraq, with McCain relying on the rather dubious argument that the ‘surge’ is the cause of all improvements there. But even if one believes McCain’s argument (I think he’s vastly overstating both the level of improvement and the role the surge has played in that), it’s so far removed from the focus Americans have on the future and the need to end America’s involvement in Iraq, that it’s not gaining traction. More important for Obama, though, is the renewed focus on Afghanistan.
Time has the Afghan “war” as the cover story, citing it as the “right war.” The Financial Times noted (on July 22) that Obama “is right when he says the situation in Afghanistan is ‘precarious and urgent’. He is right too that Iraq has distracted attention from this and other important US policy priorities; and he is right that commanders in Afghanistan could use more troops.” FT warns, however, that Obama should not fall into the trap of thinking there is a military solution for Afghanistan. By definition an increased focus on Afghanistan heightens the perception that Iraq was an unneeded distraction, and the Bush Administration left the real center of the “war on terror” neglected.
Afghanistan has been neglected, not just by the Bush administration, but also by the media and critics of US policy, all of whom have focused on Iraq.
Back in 2002, with Hamid Karzai at the helm and NATO ready to take over the Afghan operation, it appeared the US had succeeded in both defeating the Taliban and creating the possibility of a modern, democratic Afghanistan. What went wrong?
The short answer is that the same problem gripped the Administration for Afghanistan as for Iraq — an ideology-driven understanding of reality. They truly thought that democracy would rather easily take hold, and that the ‘hard part’ was over.
Could things have gone differently? In late 2001 the US “won” in Afghanistan, but the victory was not the same as the total victory over Saddam in Iraq in 2003. The US and NATO forces had limited operations in Afghanistan, and relied on war lords in the north, the so called “northern alliance,” to actually oust the Taliban. This alliance, whose rule in the early 90s had led to a kind of anarchy with rape, murder and theft being common place (leading many to embrace even the puritanical Taliban), was not a freedom loving pro-democracy group wanting to hook up with the West. They were warlords, regional leaders and often people whose agendas were petty — find a way to use their power to get ‘a piece of the action.’
When Pakistani President Musharraf made his dramatic volte-face to support the US, the Bush administration confidently concluded that the tide had turned, and now countries, seeing America’s willingness to use force, wanted to be on our good side. The dangers for Musharraf were not taken fully into account. Thus, as the Iraq war dragged on and anti-American sentiment grew, Musharraf barely held on to power, and found little reason to give the US anything other than lip service. Allowing US intrusions into Pakistan or trying to use the Pakistani military to tame tribal regions ceased being options for the increasingly weakened Musarraf regime, much to the frustration of American military leaders. This meant that al qaeda and Taliban officials would have safe refuge in Pakistan, and probably even considerable help from the ISI, the Pakistani secret service, which had been allied with the Taliban anyway.
Moreover, as the new Afghan government got situated, nothing was done to assure rule of law or hinder corruption. In fact, much like in Iraq a couple years later, the US seemed to accept corruption as the way things were done, not realizing that it is the biggest impediment to creating a stable democracy besides civil unrest. The security forces there treated the northern alliance as allies, trying to create a partnership between Karzai and various warlords and military leaders. All paid lip service to Afghanistan as one state, but warlords carved out territory to control and made sure that the central government was in charge of little outside Kabul. Opium production increased and NATO forces trying to root out Taliban or al qaeda had to work with the local militias, giving them legitimacy.
Although NATO originally was intensely supportive of efforts in Afghanistan, American unpopularity in Iraq led European public opinion to shift against an on going presence in Afghanistan. It had been America’s war and if the US decided to ignore European opinion and leap into conflict with Iraq, well, why bail the US out in Afghanistan? European governments recognized Afghanistan was important, but moved away from direct military confrontation towards help on basic security and reconstruction. All the while, the Taliban patiently bought off war lords and expanded control in southern and eastern Afghanistan.
If the US had not gone to Iraq, focused on Afghanistan, pushed for the development of stable central rule of law, and maintained the good will that the Europeans and others showed the US after 9-11, it’s possible Afghanistan might have turned out quite differently. A multilateral effort to keep the Taliban at bay and work to build a modern political economy might have worked. That didn’t happen, and Afghanistan has slipped too far to regain the opportunity for a stable, democratic, Afghanistan.
So now what? An “Afghan surge” seems to be in the works, but just as reports of the surge’s efficacy in Iraq have been greatly over-exaggerated, Afghanistan is not Iraq. It simply isn’t possible to go in, clean out the corruption, eliminate the war lords, and defeat the Taliban completely. Just as we are leaving Iraq, we need to depart Afghanistan. Breaking something without fixing it may seem bad, but it was broken before, and our ability to ‘fix’ it through military force is much like my two year old’s claims he can fix my stereo system with a hammer. Sometimes trying to fix does more harm than good.
Leaving Afghanistan would make it easier to work with Pakistan, force the Afghans to solve their own problems, and allow us to focus on al qaeda in a counter-terrorist manner, not playing into their hands by treating it like a military conflict. Leaving would probably involve a time frame much like that for Iraq, and would have to be coordinated with Afghan and other NATO forces. There also could be room for some military presence for specific security needs, and of course efforts to fight corruption and build the society shouldn’t be abandoned. But we can’t do it with guns.
Politically, Obama gains by saying “Iraq distracted us from Afghanistan, I want to focus efforts there to win.” He sounds tough, and it emphasizes the point Iraq has been a pointless and painful distraction. But if any lesson can be learned from Iraq, it’s that there is no quick military fix to corruption or a society torn apart by war and competing militias. Getting deeper militarily into Afghanistan would only create another quagmire. It is time to end our involvement in both “wars.”