The Folly of Afghanistan and Iraq: Do it Right, or Not at All

Robert Gates’ recently released book covering his time as Secretary of Defense for both Presidents Bush and Obama is full of interesting stories and insights about the White House’s deliberations on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Yet, while I’ve enjoyed following the coverage of Gates’ book, in the excerpts I’ve read, the part that struck me most forcefully was his simple declaration of what he believed our goals in Afghanistan should be.  He states,

My years in the Bush administration had convinced me that creating a strong, democratic, and more or less honest and competent central government in Afghanistan was a fantasy. Our goal, I thought, should be limited to hammering the Taliban and other extremists and to building up the Afghan security forces so they could control the extremists and deny al Qaeda another safe haven in Afghanistan.

At first glance there’s nothing controversial about Gates’ point of view.  You can debate whether it is the correct strategy, but the notion of a limited and narrow focus in Afghanistan is widely accepted as a plausible strategic choice.  For years, I myself have espoused this view. Yet upon reading this quotation something clicked in me; I started questioning whether this is a realistic option.  I can’t say why now, after years of reading similar opinions, I’ve encountered a moment of skepticism, but the more and more I think about Gates’ comment, the more I question whether it makes any sense at all.

The premise behind Gates’ strategy is sound: deny terrorists a safe haven while spending the smallest amount of American blood and treasure possible.  As the war launched most directly in response to 9/11, these goals seek to fulfill the political aims of the conflict (no new 9/11s) through the use of a limited engagement.  In Gates’ mind, embarking on a costly and risky nation-building project in Afghanistan, simply to obtain the same political goal is a waste of lives and money.  If the same goal can be reached through two methods, it makes sense to choose the easiest and least expensive route.

But there is a key assumption that underlies this analysis: that both methods can, in fact, reach the same outcome.  It’s easy to see how building a competent and honest central government in Kabul could achieve the United States’ political goals in Afghanistan.  A government capable of controlling the entire territory of the country while responding to its citizens’ needs would reduce the Taliban to, at most, a potent insurgency rather than a true governing rival.  Deprived of territory in Afghanistan, and ruthlessly persecuted, the Taliban would find it hard to plan and carry out elaborate attacks overseas.  This is in effect what has happened since the U.S. military and NATO occupied the country, serving as a proxy for a reliable Afghan government.

The question is what happens when the U.S. leaves.  A well-developed and competent Afghan government could, in theory, step in to fill the vacuum left by withdrawing Western forces.  Could the strategy proposed by Gates – building up the Afghan security forces and working with them to hunt the Taliban – achieve the same outcome?  I’m skeptical for one key reason: you can’t separate the military from the government it serves.  For the Afghan military to successfully go after the Taliban and Al Qaeda it needs credibility and the support of the population. Without these key features, Afghan security forces will find it difficult to maintain control over all of the country’s territory as well as foster the close relationships with local leaders that will permit them to hunt down terrorist operatives.

A good example of what can happen when these criteria are not fulfilled is Iraq. Since the U.S. withdrew at the end of 2011, the Iraqi government has been battling a resurgent Al Qaeda-backed insurgency.  With Iraq´s political system increasingly consolidated in the hands of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite-denominated Dawa political party, the government has lost what little support it had from Iraq´s Sunni and Kurdish population. The inability of Iraq´s politicians to move beyond sectarian concerns has paralyzed the political process and made a political solution to the country´s problems increasingly difficult to produce.  In lieu of a political solution, the Iraqi government has instead leaned on the military to produce results.  Yet, as a tool and representative of the government, the military is not immune from the country’s politics.  Because the central government has no credibility and support among large segments of the population, neither does the military; their reputations are linked.

As a result, disenfranchised and disillusioned Iraqis have increasingly taken up arms against the government and helped create a climate where Al Qaeda can operate despite not receiving support from the majority of Iraqis (remember the Anbar Awakening?).  Consequently, despite the large and well-equipped Iraqi military, the government has been unable to halt the growing violence.  This is one potential future for Afghanistan.  Like Iraq it suffers from a corrupt and detested central government that has done little to help the country overcome its longstanding ethnic divisions.  And, as in Iraq, this lack of political progress is handicapping the efforts of the country’s security forces to win the war against the insurgents.  A recent New York Times article offers a small window into this frustrating world.  According to the author, Azam Ahmed,

Afghan Army field commanders are supposed to arrest suspected insurgents and turn them over to the government in Kabul, but these days the government often simply releases them, to the great frustration of the commanders. So now, they say, they often resolve the cases themselves, either letting the suspects go or killing them on the spot.

This, of course, is no way to win a war.  The sense of a struggle without direction or logic can feed the skepticism and fatigue of the population.  Eventually, any form of stability becomes acceptable, regardless of who provides it.  As one villager put it, “I don’t care who wins this war, I just want peace.”  For American policymakers determined to keep Afghanistan out of the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s hands, this should be a worrisome sentiment.

In Iraq, the renewed insurgency has partially achieved what Washington has been working so hard to prevent: entire parts of the country have fallen out of Baghdad’s control.  Given that Washington’s strategic aim is to prevent terrorist safe havens, this is a clear indication that the situation in Iraq is headed in the wrong direction.  Some may argue that the outcome in Afghanistan will be different, and that Gate’s plan may work, if the U.S. can reach a deal with Kabul for the long-term presence of American troops in the country.  This may very well be true.  But, as was the case in Iraq with the failed Status of Forces Agreement, the lack of a competent and trustworthy government in Afghanistan has placed such an agreement in jeopardy.

At the end of the day, you cannot escape the simple truth that the military is part of the government and brings with it all the baggage that comes with such a relationship.  It’s hard to believe you can have a corrupt and incompetent government but an honest and capable military.  This is why I am skeptical of the feasibility of Gate’s strategy.  As the example of Iraq shows, hoping you can somehow force a military solution to Afghanistan’s problems appears to be a risky bet.  Instead, it seems the only way to solve the problems plaguing Iraq and Afghanistan, and for the U.S. to achieve its goal of no new terrorist safe havens, is through a political solution.  The military can be a useful tool in setting the stage for political negotiations, but it’s unlikely to achieve the long-term stability and security the U.S. seeks in the region.

There’s no doubt Gates is an intelligent and thoughtful person who simply tried to make the best of a terrible situation.  He didn’t decide to invade Afghanistan or Iraq but was largely tasked with managing the wars there.  Forced to fight two wars at once with an all-volunteer army, and an increasingly wary public, there was a natural limit to what Gates could do.  With no political support for large-scale nation building, he chose the one option available to him and did the best he could.  There’s no shame in that.  But the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan should teach us one very simple lesson: do it right, or not at all.  Invading a country and then relying on a risky exit-plan is irresponsible and does not serve American interests well.  If the only way to attain our strategic goals is through a political solution, then we must be ready to invest the time and resources necessary to see such a conclusion develop.  Otherwise, we have to rethink our willingness to launch large-scale invasions of other countries.  Afghanistan and Iraq remind us that we must, and can, do better.  We should do it right, or not at all.

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