Marc Lynch

Bad arguments never die, they just go to Afghanistan

 The wise souls who run the Washington Post op-ed page have ordained that what we, the American people, most need for Thanksgiving is another op-ed by Fred and Kim Kagan about Afghanistan (at least their third since August).   It’s the usual:  surge, surge, surge, more troops, no conditionality or timeline, and so on.    I’ll ...

 The wise souls who run the Washington Post op-ed page have ordained that what we, the American people, most need for Thanksgiving is another op-ed by Fred and Kim Kagan about Afghanistan (at least their third since August).   It’s the usual:  surge, surge, surge, more troops, no conditionality or timeline, and so on. 

  I’ll leave it to others to consider their arguments about Afghanistan (you’d think the Taliban were an important factor, but they astoundingly aren’t mentioned once). I was just struck by the conclusions they draw from the Iraqi experience for Afghanistan.  They write:

The recent American experience in Iraq illustrates how US forces and diplomacy helped correct the behaviors of a sometimes malign government in ways that helped neutralize insurgent groups. In early 2007, many Iraqi leaders were using instruments of state to support sectarian death squads. The dysfunctional government could not secure the population, pass laws or provide services to its people. The implementation of a fully resourced counterinsurgency strategy – enabled by the deployment of nearly six additional US combat brigades – transformed Iraq’s government within 18 months. Opponents of the surge argued that Iraqis would "step up" politically and militarily only if they knew that US forces would leave. Instead, before committing to the fight, political leaders and populations throughout Iraq assessed whether US forces would stay long enough to secure them. Iraqis stepped up precisely because of the absence of conditionality and time limits on US force levels…

 This catechism of the Iraq surge rests on at least two telling omissions. 

First, it ignores the Awakenings. Completely absent from their narrative is the Sahwa — the Sunni turn against the Islamic State of Iraq (AQI) which began half a year before the surge was even conceptualized. While it was helped along by some enterprising American military officers, the Sunni turn had much more to do with local power-struggles, intra-insurgency factionalism, and the crushing reality of the sectarian cleansing of Baghdad.  The "surge" probably helped to consolidate those gains, and to spread the initiative through the urban areas, but the turn simply can’t be explained through American willpower or doctrine alone.   To know whether a surge in Afghanistan might have similar effects, you would need to know not just what the U.S. is doing but whether those underlying developments among Afghans are comparable (short version: they aren’t).

 Second, the narrative misreads Iraqi politics.   In their telling, the Americans committed to staying for the long run — no timeline, no conditions — thus reassuring Iraqis that they could afford to risk turning against the insurgents.  That may have been a factor at certain points on the ground, but it’s only part of the story.  They leave out the seemingly significant fact that throughout much of that period of unconditional commitment, the Iraqis failed to make significant progress towards political accommodation.

 But by the summer of 2008, Iraqis clearly saw that the American presence would more likely than not soon decline, with the likely victory of Barack Obama and his pledge to withdraw from Iraq.  And they responded to this increasing likelihood of U.S. withdrawal along a reasonable timeline by, yes, stepping up. It was in this period of an impending American election and likely change of strategy that Prime Minister Maliki took a series of gambles aimed at consolidating state authority (i.e. the Basra military campaign), and engaged in hard bargaining over the SOFA / SFA which forced the Bush administration to accept an unconditional timeline for withdrawal (which it did, very much to the Bush administration’s credit in those closing days).  This doesn’t mean that the  U.S. should commit to withdrawal from Afghanistan right now — I don’t think the situations are exactly comparable — but it does cast doubt on the idea that leverage comes from unlimited and unconditional military commitment. 

 It’s tiresome to have to go back and rehash these old arguments.  But it’s hard to avoid when the supposed lessons of Iraq are then inappropriately transposed onto Afghanistan.  The debate over Afghan policy continues to suffer from General McChrystal’s curious decision to appoint a group of surgenik think tankers such as the Kagans, with virtually no Afghan expertise, to ghost-write a "strategy review" which has shaped so much of the subsequent public debate.  But I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the lengthy, critical evaluation in which the Obama administration has engaged — with many of the underlying assumptions challenged and debated, as they should be.

 I’ve never agreed with the widely aired opinion that Obama should just make a decision, whether it’s right or wrong (as long as that decision is to escalate, presumably). I’m impressed that his team seems to have given serious thought to the relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the legitimacy of the Karzai government, the lessons of the Soviet experience, how to pre-empt future demands for more troops, how to maximize leverage, and how to craft an exit strategy.  It doesn’t mean that they’ll get the policy right — or even that there’s a right policy to find.  I predicted weeks ago that the result of the strategy review would be a decision to add 30,000 or so troops, it wouldn’t work, hawkish critics would give Obama no credit for the decision, and next year we could have the whole argument over again.  Here’s to hoping that Obama’s speech next week proves me wrong. 

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark