Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Iraq, a war we are winning; Afghanistan, a war we can’t win

By Kori Schake As the Obama administration continues its reviews of Iraq and Afghanistan policy, the president seems committed thus far to fulfilling his campaign promise: withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and shift them to Afghanistan (as many as 30,000 troops perhaps). If he goes forward with this, Obama may pull the plug on a ...

By Kori Schake

As the Obama administration continues its reviews of Iraq and Afghanistan policy, the president seems committed thus far to fulfilling his campaign promise: withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and shift them to Afghanistan (as many as 30,000 troops perhaps). If he goes forward with this, Obama may pull the plug on a war we're winning to concentrate on a war we cannot win.

To suggest that gains in Iraq are fragile and could yet unravel is not to deny there has been enormous progress. The surge worked (despite candidate Obama's dissembling on this count). Upping the ante by sending an additional 40,000 U.S. troops to Iraq when Iraqis believed we were willing to fail not only increased our ability to impose our will, but it succeeded in changing the political dynamic inside Iraq. Iraqis began making brave political choices, culminating in Prime Minister Maliki's move to control Basra. This looks to have been the turning point of the war.

By Kori Schake

As the Obama administration continues its reviews of Iraq and Afghanistan policy, the president seems committed thus far to fulfilling his campaign promise: withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq and shift them to Afghanistan (as many as 30,000 troops perhaps). If he goes forward with this, Obama may pull the plug on a war we’re winning to concentrate on a war we cannot win.

To suggest that gains in Iraq are fragile and could yet unravel is not to deny there has been enormous progress. The surge worked (despite candidate Obama’s dissembling on this count). Upping the ante by sending an additional 40,000 U.S. troops to Iraq when Iraqis believed we were willing to fail not only increased our ability to impose our will, but it succeeded in changing the political dynamic inside Iraq. Iraqis began making brave political choices, culminating in Prime Minister Maliki’s move to control Basra. This looks to have been the turning point of the war.

Why the surge succeeded merits careful attention from the Obama administration as it develops its strategy for Afghanistan. The additional troops were unquestionably important. Equally important, though, was a strategy focused on partnering with Iraqis to build their capacity and put them at the front of the fight. Preventing attacks in Iraq increasingly became the responsibility of the Iraq government and the Iraqi security forces. To the credit of politicians and soldiers alike, Iraqis stepped up and did the hard work, and provisional electoral returns this week strongly suggest Prime Minister Maliki and also the Sunni parties are reaping the rewards of bringing security.

But — as with Afghanistan — the outcome was not in our ability to control. The use of force can break things and kill people, and by those means can sometimes compel political choices. But political choices are a second-order effect of military power, and they depend fundamentally on the enemy and on our Afghan partners.

The central problem impeding success in Afghanistan is the Afghans themselves. One does not see an opening up of the political system (there are no political parties, by presidential decree) or a burgeoning of civil society, which are the bedrock of democratic governance. Despite having five years to prepare for the May presidential election, the government of Afghanistan has postponed it. I actually had an Afghan tell me "what you call corruption, we call the economy." In the seven years it has had enormous international assistance, Afghanistan has not succeeded, and they are still expecting the international community to fix their problems.

A surge of troops and a counterinsurgency strategy carefully calibrated to Afghanistan’s circumstances will undoubtedly help us to succeed in Afghanistan. But as in Iraq and other nation-building enterprises, we cannot succeed unless the Afghans succeed, militarily and politically. And thus far, the odds of this happening appear pretty low — low enough that we should rethink whether robbing Iraq to pay Afghanistan is really the best policy.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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