Obama's surge: Has the president been misled by the Iraq analogy?

Good timing made Bush's surge look successful. Obama will probably enjoy no such luck

Published December 2, 2009 6:02AM (EST)

President Barack Obama speaks about the war in Afghanistan at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Associated Press)
President Barack Obama speaks about the war in Afghanistan at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Tuesday, Dec. 1, 2009. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Associated Press)

President Barack Obama’s just-announced plan for Afghanistan seems modeled less on Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam strategy than on George W. Bush’s Iraq exit strategy. Or, at least it is modeled on the Washington mythology that Iraq was turned from quagmire into a face-saving qualified success by sheer indomitable will and a last-minute troop “surge.” But Afghanistan is not very much like Iraq, and the Washington consensus about its supposed end-game success in Iraq is wrong in key respects. Are think tank fantasies about an Iraq "victory" now misleading Obama into a set of serious missteps in Afghanistan?

Obama explicitly referred to the Iraq withdrawal as a model for Afghanistan, saying, "Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops by the end of 2011." He was referring to the Status of Forces Agreement imposed on Bush by the Iraqi parliament in fall of 2008, which set a timetable for withdrawal. The SOFA has worked better than its critics expected, in part because the new Iraqi army is now capable of patrolling independently and is willing to stand and fight against popular militias, albeit with U.S. supplies and close air support.

Moreover, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gained control of his field officers, establishing forward operating bases that reported directly to him. He exaggerated his victory at Basra in spring of 2008 over the Mahdi army militia, and unfairly discounted the role of U.S. air power and troops in lending the operation crucial support. He and his American allies, moreover, seldom acknowledge the crucial mediating role of Iran in getting the Mahdi army to stand down. It is nevertheless true that the 275,000-strong Iraqi army can now face down most security challenges from militias. It cannot entirely stop terrorism and has not restored security to Sunni Arab cities such as Baquba and Mosul in the north, but overall attacks and civilian deaths have for the most part declined since the U.S. military ceased its active patrols. Iraq is an oil state, and is spending nearly $10 billion this year on the Ministries of Defense and the Interior (which oversees the police). Afghanistan’s entire gross domestic product is only about $12 billion a year on an exchange rate basis.

In contrast to his Iraqi counterpart, President Hamid Karzai is said by U.S. intelligence to control only about 30 percent of the country, while the Taliban control 10 to 15 percent. The rest is in the hands of warlords. Karzai is known as a prickly micro-manager of his own bureaucratic turf, but seems unable to see the big picture. He has not attempted anything nearly as ambitious as al-Maliki’s Basra campaign. The attempt of Karzai’s camp to steal the recent presidential election deeply hurt his legitimacy, as President Obama acknowledged in his speech. Meanwhile, Al-Maliki’s Islamic Mission (Da'wa) Party gained dramatically in popularity in last January’s provincial elections, suggesting that he has real popularity in the big Shiite urban centers. So the political situation in Iraq is much more promising than that in Afghanistan, despite the former’s tendency toward political gridlock and ethnic jockeying, which may delay the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for January.

A major plank of Obama’s Afghanistan platform is a troop escalation -- another 30,000 on top of the 22,000 he dispatched last winter. It inevitably calls to mind the Iraq escalation that then-Sen. Obama opposed. The Washington consensus is now that Bush’s "surge" or troop escalation defeated "al-Qaida" in Baghdad and in al-Anbar province, allowing the new Iraqi military to begin patrolling and ultimately to do so independently, and thus paving the way for a "responsible" U.S. withdrawal. While it is certainly true that the steps taken by Gen. David Petraeus in spring and summer 2007 contributed to a substantial reduction of violence in Iraq, the actions of the U.S. military were only one piece of the puzzle.

The simple fact of the matter is that in 2006 amd 2007 the Shiite militias and government troops decisively won the civil war in Baghdad. They ethnically cleansed the Sunni Arabs from the capital, creating a massive refugee problem in Jordan and Syria. Baghdad went from being a mixed city to being 85 to 90 percent Shiite, as a team at Columbia University recently charted. The killing thereafter was so much reduced because there were few mixed neighborhoods left. Even the willingness of Sunni Arabs to join pro-American Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq militias that took on Sunni extremist groups derived in some important part from this fear of being ethnically cleansed.

In Iraq, for all its acts of stupidity, the Bush-Cheney regime at least backed the majority, the Shiites. With 60 percent of the population, the Shiites were always likely to win the civil war produced by the power vacuum left by Washington’s defeat of Saddam Hussein and his feared Republican Guards tank corps.

In Afghanistan, the major allies of the U.S. and NATO have been the national minorities -- the Sunni Tajiks, the Shiite Hazaras and the Uzbeks. Admittedly, they are joined by pro-Karzai Pashtuns, but Pashtun support for the U.S. and NATO is clearly dwindling. Obama’s surge of U.S. troops into Helmand and Qandahar could easily provoke a Pashtun backlash. The Pashtuns are thus not analogous to Iraq’s Sunni Arabs. They are a plurality of the population, not a minority, and they have not lost the low-intensity civil war in which the country is embroiled. Nor have they been ethnically cleansed under the current government. The Sunni Arabs of Iraq threw in the towel, joined in elections, and even formed pro-American militias only as it became clear that the Shiites were routing them. The Pashtuns are not in that position.

Standing up an Afghanistan security force is a key element of Obama’s plan, as it was a central strategy in Iraq for the Bush administration and its allies. Doing so in Afghanistan, however, is a far more daunting task than in Iraq. Only 44 of the 127 units of the Afghanistan National Army surveyed for the U.S. Congress this fall were found capable of operating independently. That is, although there are on paper 95,000 troops in Afghanistan’s army, only about 33,000 can strike out on their own. U.S. military doctrine prior to the advent of smart munitions was that a 3-to-1 manpower advantage was sufficient for an attack. If there are 15,000 committed Taliban and other insurgent fighters, who have the advantage of fighting on their home terrain, then government forces could at the moment simply not marshal enough capable forces to defeat them, which helps explain the country’s downward security spiral. There is reason to believe, moreover, that the Afghan National Army troops are considerably less effective than their rating suggests. In the year ending September, one in four had quit or deserted. Only 10 percent of troops are literate. (In contrast, 74 percent of Iraqis can read and write.) One in every six Afghan soldiers is alleged to be a drug addict.

The military is, moreover, anything but national. The new report to Congress reveals that the army is disproportionately drawn from and commanded by officers of the Tajik ethnic group, who are 41 percent of the trained troops but only a quarter of the population. (Tajiks speak a form of Persian and are more urban than other Afghans.) The Pashtuns, the biggest ethnic group, at 42 percent, are only a third of the troops. There are virtually no Pashtun troops from Helmand and Qandahar provinces, the centers of guerrilla opposition to the Karzai government and to the foreign troop presence.

The implication is that often, when we speak of Afghanistan National Army troops patrolling Pashtun villages alongside U.S. or other NATO forces, we may well be speaking of Tajik troops doing so. Many Pashtun clansmen are fiercely proud and independent, and would be humiliated by having Tajik soldiers lord it over them. (In Afghanistan, Pashtuns often unfairly depict Tajiks as soft, urban and effeminate.) The only thing worse than Tajik dominance would be what the Tajiks brought along with them -- Western Christian soldiers outfitted like astronauts. Ironically, the Tajik dominance of the old 1980s communist government of Afghanistan, and their alliance with Russian troops, were among the reasons that impelled the Pashtuns to mount a Muslim insurgency in the first place.

If there are considerable problems with the Afghanistan army, the police, numbering around 93,000, are considered much worse -- poorly trained, undisciplined and held to be highly corrupt. But the main problem is that there are not enough of them. The entire province of Qunduz north of the capital only has 800 police for a population of nearly a million. In contrast, the similarly sized San Francisco has over 2,000 police officers and rather fewer armed militants.

Iraq in 1990 had a million-man army and possessed many relatively educated and able recruits for its military. It was, after all, an industrializing society with advanced factories and large cities. Thousands of Shiite militiamen trained by Iran’s professional Revolutionary Guards Corps were allegedly inducted into the army in 2008. Afghanistan’s military, on the other hand, numbered only 60,000 under the Taliban, and the Northern Alliance militias that held out against the minions of Mullah Omar were small.

Seasoned observers find preposterous the prospect that a crash training program could double the size of both the police and the army and turn them into effective, upright and independent security forces in the space of two years or so. (Obama wants to begin drawing back down U.S. forces in only 18 months.) Nor would mere basic training address the problems of illiteracy, drug use, corruption, desertion and ethnic grievances.

There is a sense in which the easy victory that American Special Forces operatives -- allied with the Northern Alliance -- won over the Taliban in fall of 2001 proved a fatal, siren call, inviting Bush and the arrogant men around him into the Iraq quagmire. As it turned out, the victory in Afghanistan was declared prematurely. (The previous administration suffered from a tendency to premature ejaculations, as on the deck of the USS Lincoln on May 1, 2003.) The Taliban were not gone, but merely changed the color of their turbans and faded away to fight another day. Their opposition to the new order was joined by some of America’s former allies among the Mujahedin (whom Ronald Reagan had lauded as "freedom fighters"), such as Jalaluddin Haqqani and Gulbadin Hikmatyar. Obama is in danger of being misled by the inside-the-Beltway think tank consensus on what happened in Iraq, and of applying those "lessons" to Afghanistan. Even if the two actually resembled one another, the Washington story about Iraq is full of holes. But they are very different countries, societies and situations. Bush caught a break with his surge, inasmuch as it coincided with a massive shift in the local power balance. Obama will have to be very lucky indeed to catch a similar break in Afghanistan.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Afghanistan Barack Obama Iraq War Taliban U.s. Military