Shadow Government

Redux: Why Afghanistan Could Go the Way of Iraq

President Barack Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war. He could not have conveyed any more clearly that irrespective of consequences, the U.S. military was leaving Iraq. His administration put in place an arbitrary "end of combat operations" in August 2009 and announced that all U.S. forces would leave Iraq by December 2011. Negotiations with ...

Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama campaigned on ending the Iraq war. He could not have conveyed any more clearly that irrespective of consequences, the U.S. military was leaving Iraq. His administration put in place an arbitrary "end of combat operations" in August 2009 and announced that all U.S. forces would leave Iraq by December 2011. Negotiations with the Iraqi government over the residual U.S. military presence were explicit that the mission of those forces was only advising and training the Iraqi military. And when the Iraqi government balked at granting blanket immunity to U.S. forces, the Obama administration took no for an answer and withdrew.

The retreat was camouflaged by "the largest U.S. diplomatic operation since the Marshall Plan," a triumph of soft power that was so dangerously beyond the State Department’s capabilities and so poorly attuned to Iraqi needs that despite 17,000 people, it was ineffectual. It was quickly reduced to 5,000 (including contractors), and even that will be cut by two-thirds this year. U.S. soft power has had no demonstrable effect on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s choices to use the means of state power to move against political rivals and non-Shiites, allow Iran to ferry weapons through Iraq, support Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and deny the United States political cooperation on virtually every issue in the Middle East. The day Maliki returned from meeting with Obama, he issued an arrest order for his (Sunni) deputy; his (Sunni) finance minister was also raided by security forces. Sectarian violence has escalated horrifically, now killing a thousand Iraqis a month. We enabled a descent into authoritarianism.

Obama’s "responsible withdrawal" squandered U.S. success in Iraq, and the administration now looks to be replicating that failure in Afghanistan. The president began his Afghanistan "surge" by announcing its end date, a timeline unencumbered by achieving its objectives. Predictably, the political result negated the military effort, with all affected parties gaming the U.S. exit. The White House established a 2014 end date to combat operations and accelerated withdrawal plans corresponding with no discernible (foreign) political or military objective — it does, however, align with the president’s (domestic) political objective of "the tide of war receding." 

The corresponding "civilian surge" that would place diplomatic engagement and development assistance at the forefront of the U.S. effort never materialized; the inspector general reports so little accountability for aid that we’re actually funding the enemy. The administration has declined to outline its plans for the U.S. mission on Afghanistan after 2014 despite pleas from military leaders and even the administration’s civilian supporters like Michèle Flournoy that it is essential to keeping Afghanistan cooperative in our war efforts.

Afghanistan has repeatedly conveyed its support for a continued U.S. military presence after 2014. In the past two months, the Obama White House has started making petulant statements about losing patience with negotiations on the agreement that would apply to U.S. forces after 2014. The White House has now regaled the Washington Post with the — presumably classified — details of a video conference in which "President Obama drew a line in the sand for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for keeping a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama warned him, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014." 

The sticking point in the agreement under negotiation is not immunity for U.S. military forces (as it was in Iraq). What Karzai reportedly wants is intelligence sharing and a commitment to defend Afghanistan against external invasion. Presumably intelligence sharing is workable, since if the United States is supporting Afghan military operations that will need to occur — which leaves the defense question. The Obama White House considers this beyond the pale as it would require Senate ratification. It is a big ask, to be sure, but not an unreasonable one from a country that has been subject to much Pakistani malfeasance. And one that ought to be subject to creative solutions — the United States is committed to the protection of many countries with which it does not have explicit defense treaties. Karzai is being unduly demanding because we have been unreliable in our dealings with him. He’s not wrong to doubt us.

The fundamental error in the Obama Administration’s policies toward weak states is that the policies expect the threat of abandonment to produce brave political choices consistent with U.S. interests. Either Obama genuinely doesn’t care what happens in Afghanistan after 2014, or he believes that publicly conveying threats to Karzai will produce a positive outcome. It won’t.

Iraq’s intransigence, rapid descent into violence, and choices that impede American policies show that it won’t. Societies emerging out of political violence have very low levels of social trust, weak institutions of governance, and simmering political feuds with deep roots that only sustained, predictable, active involvement can contain and eventually overcome. They expect us to abandon them because that is their experience. Our challenge is conveying a reliable, long-term commitment.

Iraq had many more advantages presaging success than does Afghanistan; correspondingly, we should expect Afghanistan to fragment more quickly, become prey to outside actors — states and terrorist organizations — and have fewer means to sustain what positive trends exist. Obama is so clearly conveying his indifference in Afghanistan that Karzai and others would be crazy not to position themselves to benefit from the U.S. withdrawal rather than make the difficult political choices that would enable a continued U.S. presence. That’s what Maliki did in Iraq.

Our involvement in Iraq actually went a long way in a short time to foster positive political developments in that country; we have not had corresponding effect in Afghanistan. That should argue for more patience, not less. Because if Iraq could become this devastated in the space of two years after American withdrawal, Afghanistan will fracture even more quickly. Thinking they are a danger only to themselves, content to fight the "near enemy" within Iraq and Afghanistan rather than continue threatening us, is terrifyingly shortsighted, given the way al Qaeda has metastasized. Obama should be doing an awful lot more to ensure that doesn’t happen on his watch. He should start by retracting his ultimatum; unless he does, Afghanistan will go the way of Iraq.

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