Why Afghanistan Is No Iraq

The recent news from Afghanistan is once again not good. It includes word of a major new American operation in the opium capital of the world, Helmand Province in the southern part of the country. Worse yet, recent developments feature the capture of an American GI by militia forces in the east. Many Americans are probably wondering why we are doubling up our bets in yet another war. Wasn’t Obama supposed to be a change from Bush, rather than same thing, different place?

The latest news just reinforces worries that many have been having for quite a while. As U.S. troop totals approach 60,000, and the war approaches Vietnam in length (though certainly not in casualties, costs, atrocities, or net effect), this is only natural. But many of the common critiques are misplaced. Consider two of the most common:

Criticism #1: “Afghans always hate, and drive out, invaders.”

This allegation is based largely on Afghanistan’s long history of being at the crossroads of human movement and of conflict, and more specifically on its ability to defeat British forces in the 19th century as well as Soviet forces in the 1980s. To be sure, Afghans are worthy warriors. But these previous invaders sought colonial or imperial dominance of one sort or another. Today’s international effort seeks only to help get Afghans on their feet well enough that we can responsibly leave. The difference between U.S./NATO motives, and the size and strength of their internationally supported coalition, versus the motives and approaches of past invaders is stark. This is not meant as a naïve-sounding expression of the goodness of American motives; rather, it is a fact, documented among other things by the reality that some 40 countries are part of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan today.

Of course, not everyone believes these facts on the ground. Some think we intend to stay a long time; others believe we are not really trying hard to succeed. To the extent we fail in the effort, our motives will surely continue to be doubted, and support for our presence will continue to weaken as has been the case in recent times. But just as in Iraq, if we can successfully convey the sense that we are building up capability now so we can more rapidly and successfully build it down later, we have a chance to gain adequate Afghan support. Indeed, for all the reduction in our popularity this decade, the international community is still far more popular in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq when the surge began—and certainly more popular than the Soviets or other previous invaders ever were. Recent decisions by General McChrystal to limit the use of airstrikes and other types of offensive firepower may help sustain our support, or at least put a floor underneath current levels.

Criticism #2: “Afghanistan is much harder than Iraq.”

Ironically, this argument is probably offered more by supporters of the current mission than by its opponents. Their intentions are understandable. Often it is administration officials, like Secretary Robert Gates, making the point, and they seem to want to brace the American people for a tough road ahead (even as President Obama tries to talk down the mission’s goals by emphasizing, incorrectly, that our real goal is simply counterterrorism).

To be sure, there are ways in which Afghanistan is at least more complicated than Iraq. And in some specific ways, admittedly, it may be harder. The number of tribes is even larger. The drug problem is worse, and the country does not have the oil resources that Iraq is blessed with. The sanctuary for resistance fighters available in Pakistan is even harder to control than, say, the Iraq-Syria border. The dearth of Afghan professionals after three decades of war has driven away or killed many of them, and prevented a new generation from being properly educated and trained, is a serious impediment to development.

But that same history of war makes the Afghan people realistic in their expectations about the future, and grateful for even modest progress. The sanctuary in Pakistan is a very serious problem, but the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq (largely through Syria) and the flow of advanced weapons into Iraq from Iran were huge problems, too. Drugs are a big problem in Afghanistan, but corruption including within the oil trade has been extremely problematic in Iraq. Moreover, while Afghanistan’s lack of natural resources constitutes a long-term challenge for the country, in the short term foreign resources can largely compensate, given the current commitment of the international community to this important mission.

The levels of violence in Iraq in the middle of this decade, before the surge, were far worse than anything Afghanistan has experienced since 2001. In fact, civilians were being killed at 10 times the rate in Iraq, from 2004 through the first part of 2007, than in Afghanistan now. Tens of thousands of Iraqi professionals were driven out of the country or killed; whole communities were disrupted and displaced; sectarian tensions were inflamed far more than they have been in Afghanistan.

To be sure, Afghanistan is hard enough. But on balance, stabilizing that country should be just as feasible as was stabilizing Iraq. We are far from out of the woods in Afghanistan. But it is no quagmire, no Vietnam, and no inevitable graveyard of superpowers.