Afghanistan is Not Iraq—but …

During my recent fascinating trip to Afghanistan with the Canadian military—during which Canada, a stalwart and serious ally in this war, suffered its 100th military fatality of the operation—it was common to hear NATO commanders argue that “Afghanistan is not Iraq.”

Aware of the huge differences between the countries, and of the need to tailor any counterinsurgency effort to the specific characteristics of the place it is being applied, they have wanted to emphasize there is no blind effort to mechanically apply the lessons of the successful population-protection strategy from Iraq to this country. But in fact, the main reason I am completing the trip with increased hopefulness is that in fact we are successfully applying the correct lessons of the Iraq surge to this admittedly much different theater. Perhaps Afghanistan is a fair amount like Iraq after all.

First, it is worth noting that the growing pessimism in the West about Afghanistan today seems warranted. Most Afghans with whom I have spoken on my trip were depressed about the state of their country seven years after the overthrow of the Taliban. There is no denying statistics about worsening violence, growing Taliban control of key parts of the country, flows of insurgents from Pakistan across a 2,500-kilometer mountainous border, and Afghanistan’s continued problems with narcotics. Modest GDP growth rates of recent years, improved child immunization statistics, and a few other such trends are hardly enough to counter these negative realities.

It is true that all is not lost. In Kandahar, for example, citizens are identifying up to 80 percent of all improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to authorities before they go off, suggesting the population may be our ally, and the city has more life today than did most Iraqi cities through at least 2007. Moreover, there are a number of impressive Afghans in various national and provincial leadership positions. But as long as the security situation continues to worsen, it is hard to see a positive trajectory here.

It is also right to remember the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, for they are considerable. Iraq is a middle-income country with a relatively long and strong tradition as a nation-state, considerable infrastructure, huge oil resources, and a sizable middle class. Afghanistan by contrast is one of the poorest countries on Earth, with very few resources and limited human capital.

Thankfully, despite their somewhat rosy view of the situation here, NATO political and military leaders have come to the right policy judgment. Gen. David McKiernan, who commands the NATO “ISAF” mission as well as the U.S.-dominated Operation Enduring Force, has recommended to Washington that there be an increase from two to six American brigade combat teams in the coming 18 months. The outgoing Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration both seemed inclined to support these requests. (Perhaps Mr. Obama will be able to use his popularity to coax a few more forces out of the allies, though at present that seems somewhat doubtful.)

The added troops would be used to secure major highways in the country, expand coverage of populated regions, attempt to reduce the flow of insurgents into the country from Pakistan to the extent possible, and perhaps most of all, train Afghan military and police forces.

Here’s where the analogy, or lack thereof, to Iraq enters the picture. Even with these planned increases, NATO forces will total no more than 90,000 troops – only two-thirds of what the United States alone deployed in Iraq before the surge there. Less well known, but just as important, is the fact that, when the surge began in Iraq, that country already had about 400,000 security forces of its own. Afghanistan by contrast has only 150,000 today, with plans to go up to about 200,000 but not much higher. Naturally, one cannot talk of the two military operations in the same way.

However, basic principles of counterinsurgency are similar in both places. And NATO forces are applying them even before additional American troops arrive. Current guidelines include the following:

  • The strategy for securing the country is following the concept of “clear, hold and build.” Until now, NATO forces have often moved into populated areas to pursue insurgents and then pulled out once a given search and destroy operation was complete. They have then ceded control of the town back to Taliban and other insurgent forces, whereupon friendly Afghans were often killed or intimidated into never helping us again. This method does not work, as we also learned during the first four years of the Iraq war. Today, as in Iraq, NATO and Afghan security forces are proceeding more deliberately, only moving into new regions when forces are available to hold onto them after the initial incursions.
  • Training of soldiers and police has become much more serious. Training programs are not only longer and tougher, but training teams are being embedded into units after they complete training. They then operate and fight with them as necessary.
  • American and other NATO units are now partnering with Afghan police and army forces more systematically, providing role models and helping them obtain combat experience before they have to secure their country on their own.
  • A greater effort is being made by NATO leadership to encourage Kabul to improve its police and military leadership. NATO officers are using gentle persuasion to try to convince the Karzai government to replace Afghan military and police commanders who fail to do their jobs.
  • Economic development funds are being quickly deployed at the local level as military operations are wrapped up, or when Afghan authorities make needed reforms in other ways. Such funds create jobs as well as a visible sense of rapid progress. Canadian and British experts, many of them civilians, are among the leaders in these efforts.

Afghanistan has a long way to go, and Gen. McKiernan is right to say the increase in U.S. forces should not be a surge but a sustained new level of commitment. In that sense, too, Afghanistan is not Iraq. But the parallels are many, and the lessons are being applied very effectively by a U.S. leadership and a NATO command structure that have learned a great deal over the last seven years about how to do these kinds of missions right.

The glass may not be half-full in Afghanistan right now. But we can and should take heart, if President-elect Obama does as he has promised and commits the United States to this war in a truly serious way for the first time.