Tale of Two War Zones
As global attention shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan, from Bush's war to Obama's war, Foreign Policy reconsiders the inevitable—but deeply flawed—comparisons between these two misunderstood countries. We consulted with war correspondents, do-gooders, and public officials who told us to forget the surface similarities in the daily blood-and-guts news. Iraq and Afghanistan may have roughly the same population, but, from the price of a kabob to the explosives that will blow your legs off, they couldn't be more different: a warning to those who would seek to import Big Ideas from one war zone to the other.
Iraq: A formerly middle-class country, "proud," destroyed: "These people went from having normal lives, with houses and cars and private school, to having nothing."
Afghanistan: "Nairobi on crack": a much poorer, less-developed, and often-occupied country. "There’s a sense of hopelessness, of ‘how are you ever going to get out of that cycle?’"
Iraq: 48° to 94°F (average January and July temperatures in Baghdad); "10 o’clock at night and still baking," with frequent sandstorms
Afghanistan: 30°F to 74°F (average January and July temperatures in Kabul); "the climate of Santa Fe," with a "lovely fall, a muddy winter and spring, and a hot dry summer"
Iraq: Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki: the "legitimacy of a mass political base," for now, and broad support from Shia and Kurds, although some fear him becoming a strongman. Maliki on Maliki: "I am a friend of the United States, but I am not America’s man in Iraq."
Afghanistan: President Hamid Karzai: a "puppet," with little hope of coalescing the fractured political scene; U.S. considers him the least-worst option. Karzai on Karzai: "If I am called a puppet because we are grateful to the U.S., then let that be my nickname."
Price of a kabob
Afghanistan: 50 cents
Price of a bottle of whiskey
Iraq: 10,000 dinars ($8.60)
Afghanistan: 5,000 afghanis ($110)
Iraq: U.S. Embassy FDAC (dining facility)
Afghanistan: The bar at the swank Gandamack Lodge and dance clubs such as Bayou Blues and Crazy Eight
Approximate number of ATMs in capital
Price of a crosstown car trip
Iraq: Up to $1,000 for an armored convoy
Afghanistan: $5-$15 for a taxi
Lost in the war
Iraq: 4,300 coalition troops and at least 20,000 Iraqi soldiers and police; at least 90,000 civilians due to fighting and 50,000 due to indirect causes; 163 journalists; 15,000 artifacts from looted museums, including the world’s premier collection of more than 4,000 ancient cylindrical seals
Afghanistan: 1,160 coalition troops and at least 10,000 Afghan soldiers and police; at least 11,000 civilians due to fighting and 20,000 from indirect causes; six journalists; artifacts from hundreds of archeological digs (culture minister describes Afghanistan as "one big museum" slowly pillaged)
Iraq: 14,400 candidates for 440 provincial council seats (January 2009). A strong partisan political culture with numerous political parties: "Tribal structures are basically artificial creations of the Baathist state." Favored campaign slogans: "We are poor like you and we work for you"; "With us your life would be worth something."
Afghanistan: 2,707 candidates running for 249 parliamentary seats (April 2005). Political culture tends toward "tremendous atomization." Tribes—"a grass-roots political structure"—are far more influential than parties. Favored campaign slogans: none, because the population is largely illiterate. Posters use symbols such as horses and lamps.
Iraq: Baghdad to Kirkuk: C-130 airplanes and Black Hawk helicopters fly daily. "To get from A to B in Iraq, you didn’t have much trouble." No-go zones: Ramadi, Adhamiyah, Dora
Afghanistan: Kabul to Jalalabad: Treacherous roads or long waits for airplanes. No-go zones: Helmand and Kandahar provinces
Price of a Kalashnikov
Afghanistan: $200 (or one-tenth of a kg of heroin)
The bang in the middle of the night
Iraq: Improvised explosive devices (IEDs), homemade or imported from Iran. "They never waste an IED on a couple of people. They want to blow up a convoy."
Afghanistan: Leftover land mines from the Soviet conflict. "You see a lot of Afghans with missing legs. You could sit there at night, and you’d hear a bang, and then a dog yelling, because the dog had chased a mouse or rabbit into a field and gotten itself half blown up."
Experts: Ashraf Ghani served as the finance minister of Afghanistan from July 2002 to December 2004 and worked with the World Bank in Baghdad. Kristele Younes, a senior advocate at Refugees International, lived in Kabul for two years and has worked with displaced populations in Iraq. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, former Baghdad bureau chief of the Washington Post, is now covering the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Thomas E. Ricks, a Foreign Policy blogger, covered both wars for the Washington Post. Spencer Ackerman, a reporter for the Washington Independent and American Prospect, embedded in Afghanistan and in Iraq. Rory Stewart, a Harvard University professor, runs the Turquoise Mountain Foundation in Kabul and was an advisor for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.
More from Foreign Policy
America Is a Heartbeat Away From a War It Could Lose
Global war is neither a theoretical contingency nor the fever dream of hawks and militarists.
The West’s Incoherent Critique of Israel’s Gaza Strategy
The reality of fighting Hamas in Gaza makes this war terrible one way or another.
Biden Owns the Israel-Palestine Conflict Now
In tying Washington to Israel’s war in Gaza, the U.S. president now shares responsibility for the broader conflict’s fate.
Taiwan’s Room to Maneuver Shrinks as Biden and Xi Meet
As the latest crisis in the straits wraps up, Taipei is on the back foot.