The Middle East Channel

Spare Afghanistan Iraq’s success

General David Petraeus will soon be back in Washington D.C. to report on progress in a war many consider lost, this time in Afghanistan. The narrative that Petraeus and his surge in troops along with the new way of war he is credited in perfecting led to "success" in Iraq is hard to challenge these ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

General David Petraeus will soon be back in Washington D.C. to report on progress in a war many consider lost, this time in Afghanistan. The narrative that Petraeus and his surge in troops along with the new way of war he is credited in perfecting led to "success" in Iraq is hard to challenge these days. It informs our view of Afghanistan as well, with many placing their faith in the hopes that Petraeus will save us in Afghanistan just as he did in Iraq. The truth is much more complex. Iraq’s fortunes changed for many reasons, not only the changes introduced by Gen. Petraeus. And the terrible costs to Iraqis should give pause to those who want to replicate the experience in Afghanistan.

If we hope to avoid learning the wrong lessons for Afghanistan, we have to better understand what really happened in Iraq. Although it is commonly believed to have erupted in 2006 after the Samara Shrine bombing, the civil war in Iraq really began in 2003. It intensified after the 2004 destruction of Fallujah which led to hundreds of thousands of Sunnis from the Anbar province pouring into western Baghdad, displacing Shiites who fled to east Baghdad and displaced Sunnis. In Iraq, Sunni and Shiite militias were at war against the occupation and each other. Self defense militias and resistance groups soon preyed on the populations they were trying to protect or liberate.

At first Shiites were on the defensive, despite being the majority of the population, because they lacked a strong self defense force and their community was targeted in near daily lethal attacks. For the first two years of the occupation Sunni militias were very confident that they could expel the Americans and defeat Shiites, preventing a Shiite takeover of the government. In 2005 sectarian Shiite parties took over the state and its security forces and they began to punish Sunni neighborhoods and towns. Shiite militias cooperated with the Iraqi police and army.  As a result, when the Americans attempted to hand over security to the Iraqi security forces in 2006, the Iraqi security forces were effective, compared to 2004 when they were plagued by desertion, but not at providing security for the population. They were effective as Shiite deathsquads fighting on the side of Shiites in the civil war, targeting Sunnis.

By late 2006, American commanders were returning to Iraqi neighborhoods to protect civilians not just from militias but also from the Iraqi security forces. My Sunni friends who backed attacks against the American occupation worried that if the Americans pulled out, the Shiite dominated government would wipe Sunnis out. Sunnis were beginning to feel like a vulnerable minority. By the end of 2006, I was meeting Sunni resistance leaders in Iraq, Syria and Jordan and they were admitting defeat, regretting decisions made in 2003 to boycott collaboration with the American occupation and this handing over the country to "Iran," as they called all Shiites. The Saudis were warning that they might intervene to defend Sunnis in Iraq should the Americans pull out. Iraq’s civil war threatened to become a regional war if the Americans left, affecting American hegemony in the Middle East.

Sunni militiamen in Iraq also realized that their alliance with al Qaeda had backfired. Al Qaeda wanted a stronghold in Iraq so it could continue its global jihad but the Iraqi resistance was interested only in liberating Iraq from Americans and Shiites. Al Qaeda men were imposing Taliban like restrictions that Iraqis resented. They were undermining traditional authority figures, disrupting smuggling routes and the local economy and even demanding local women as wives. They were now a golem-like problem. In the past, Sunni militias had clashed with al Qaeda. I saw it in Fallujah in 2004 and there was also a tribal rebellion against al Qaeda in al Qaim in 2005. But the Iraqi militiamen were slaughtered because the Americans did not back them. Other Iraqis were afraid to collaborate with the Americans, knowing that they would be abandoned and slaughtered by al Qaeda. The American signal that they were increasing their commitment reassured potential Sunni collaborators. The Americans were finally also subtle enough to take advantage of local dynamics and they cut deals with local powerbrokers even if they were insurgents. This was the beginning of the Awakening. This time the Americans backed the Sunni militiamen against al Qaeda. For Iraqi Sunni resistance militias there were two occupations, an American one and an Iranian one. One group after another made a strategic decision to strike a deal with the American occupiers, knowing they would leave, in order to regroup to fight the Iranian (Shiite) occupation.

General Petraeus arrived in early 2007 and institutionalized changes that were already occurring on the ground. But violence continued to get worse and peak well into the summer of 2007, when Sunni fighters destroyed hundreds of Shiite villages while Shiite militiamen consolidated their control over Baghdad. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were killed, and millions were displaced from their homes. Baghdad was virtually in Shiite hands while there were few mixed areas left in Iraq. Sunnis and Shiites had been separated. As American commitment increased and it looked like Baghdad would be the focus of American attention, the main Shiite militia, the Mahdi army, also changed its calculus, knowing it would be targeted during the surge. The Mahdi army had expanded so much that its leader, Moqtada al Sadr, lost control over his men, many of whom now acted more like a criminal mafia and a death squad than the ideologically committed self defense militia they were supposed to be. His group was also clashing with Shiite rivals, including the Supreme Council and Prime Minister Maliki. So in August of 2007 he declared a freeze. It was after this ceasefire of the main Shiite militia that violence dropped significantly.

Perhaps the most important part of the surge was its declaration. Knowing that the Americans were not leaving but were actually increasing their troop levels led to Iraqi militias reassessing their own strategies. Sunni militiamen realized that they could actually strike a deal with the Americans and maybe they would not be abandoned, betrayed and then killed in revenge by al Qaeda as had happened in the past. Shiite militias realized that territory now in their hands (Baghdad) would be the focus of this American surge, and it was best to lie low and avoid getting hit if possible. Meanwhile there was a crucial surge of Iraqi security forces as well but they were being cleansed of their worst sectarian elements and inculcating the mantra that they were the law and the state.

Then the Americans built immense walls around the devastated neighborhoods of Baghdad, and sand berms in the Anbar province. The gains of the civil war were frozen, much as the Dayton accords froze the ethnic cleansing gains of the Serbs in Bosnia. The walls were oppressive but they worked. Militiamen and police could not shoot at neighborhoods. Weapons could not be smuggled in. The Americans and Iraqis working with them could control who entered and left neighborhoods by allowing only one entry and exit point, preventing militiamen from entering. By basing themselves within these neighborhoods the Americans could develop sources and address the basic needs of a desperate population. It was not about protecting the population, it was about controlling them. The Americans actually killed three times as many civilians during the surge as before, even if they also killed many more militiamen too.

Then Prime Minister Maliki surprised everybody by going after the Mahdi Army. He had come to power with their backing but by 2007 their relationship had soured. Maliki relied on American help to brutally crush the Shiite militia throughout Iraq, but he was credited even by Sunnis with their termination, and it bolstered his legitimacy. At the same time he began to emasculate the Sunni militiamen of the Awakening, who could never go back underground once they had joined up with the Americans, and whose names and addresses were known to the Iraqi security forces. By 2009, there were no militias left in Iraq who could control a neighborhood, village or checkpoint. And the security forces had been purged of their worst elements so that they could now fill the vacuum adequately enough, even if they were brutal and corrupt, torturing routinely. There also remained no movement contesting the system or trying to overthrow it. Instead Iraqis were reduced to begging for access to work or services. The system was stable, even if violence on the street remains terrible, and worse than in Afghanistan today. The surge in Iraq was meant to lead to political reconciliation and the integration of Sunnis and their militias into the Iraqi state. That never really happened but it didn’t have to happen. Maliki can be as authoritarian as he wants to be. Meanwhile there are assassinations and bombings every day. 

My time in Afghanistan has convinced me that the U.S. is drawing the wrong conclusions from the Iraq experience. The most obvious lesson of course is not to invade and occupy another country. But in addition, none of the factors that helped reduce the violence in Iraq exist in Afghanistan. At 20 percent of the Iraqi population, Sunni Arabs could be brutally crushed by Shiites and Americans until they were forced to accept a new order. The Taliban are dominated by Pashtuns who are 40 percent of the Afghan population, the largest group. And the Taliban have every reason to feel like they are winning. Every year they control more and more of the country and reduce the ability of the Afghan government to operate anywhere. In fact now there are Taliban groups in non Pashtun areas, among Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen. Moreover, the Taliban are not only Taliban these days, meaning they are not just religious students led by Mullahs, the way they were when they fought the British in the 19th Century, the Russians in the 1980s or warlords in the 1990s. Many of them are just common Afghans, farmers, villagers, who view themselves as Mujahedin.

In Iraq the key battles were in urban areas — Baghdad, Ramadi, Basra and elsewhere — with grid-like neighborhoods and paved roads. With enough brutality it was possible to control the population. In Afghanistan the center of gravity is in the rural areas where most of the population lives, not in the cities. The Taliban are in the many thousands of villages. Kabul and other cities may never fall, but the countryside will remain in Taliban hands. The Americans are not using the tactics that were effective for them in Iraq. They are not basing themselves in communities. They can’t since there are thousands and thousands of villages. They are unable to control the population. It is impossible to live among the people the way the Americans did during the surge in Iraq, because there is no population concentration, and every home in a village is so far away from another, and there are few roads. You can rumble along a road for a few hours to shake hands and drink tea with some elders only to head back to the base to get a burger and ice cream before the chow hall closes, but the Taliban own the night and can undermine any deal you will make. They are part of the community.

There is also no civil war between Afghan insurgents the way there was in Iraq. The Taliban may not be very well organized but the various groups are united enough to focus on their enemies and win over more Afghan support. Al Qaeda is not even in Afghanistan, it was defeated by 2002 and the survivors fled to Pakistan. The Taliban are locals fighting for local reasons, led by Afghans fighting for Afghanistan. They were never very close to al Qaeda. They inherited Bin Laden and his Arab fighters when they spread to Jalalabad and elsewhere in the 1990s and disapproved of the troublesome foreigners but were bound by their own rules of hospitality and Islamic solidarity. After the punitive American raid in revenge for September 11, though, a new Taliban emerged. They learned from their mistakes and have signaled that they would not allow al Qaeda to return. Indeed the Taliban control most of the country and al Qaeda has not returned, preferring the better infrastructure and safety of Pakistan. Nobody has explained why al Qaeda in Afghanistan is more dangerous than al Qaeda in Pakistan. The Americans have to rely on deniable drone strikes in Pakistan out of sensitivity to Pakistani sensibilities. Were al Qaeda to attempt a return to Afghanistan, the Americans and their B-52s could wipe out the entire valley.

All we have succeeded in doing is pushing all of Afghanistan’s problems into Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons, a huge population and a persistent conflict with India. So now the Taliban and al Qaeda and drug networks are in Pakistan and our drone strikes are pushing them deeper into Pakistan, even into Karachi. How is that an improvement? Pakistan is not Iran. Iran had an interest in making sure friendly Shiites took over the government in Iraq. And it had an interest in undermining the American occupation because America threatened Iran with regime change and now had tens of thousands of troops on the Iranian border. In the end, though, Tehran and Washington wanted the same thing in Baghdad, and backed many of the same political forces. But Pakistan is interested in preventing a pro-India government from taking over in Afghanistan. It’s not fighting America, it’s fighting its regional foe who will remain when the Americans eventually abandon Afghanistan as they will.

In Iraq the American surge led to a strategic reassessment on the part of Iraqi militias. But successive surges in Afghanistan have only led to surges in violence in that country. The Taliban are not changing their calculus. At best when the Americans surge in a village, as they did in Helmand’s Marjah, the Taliban may simply move on to another village, knowing the Americans can never achieve enough troop number so make a strategic difference and that the Americans will eventually leave anyway while the Afghan "government in a box" is not coming to replace them. There is also no surge in Afghan security forces. The Afghan security forces are ineffective except at provoking the ire of the population and encouraging them to join the Taliban. In the south many of them can’t even speak Pashto, the local language, and are viewed as outsiders. They can neither protect the population nor kill their enemy. At least the Iraqi security forces were effective at being brutal, which led to the Shiite victory in the civil war. In Afghanistan we have created a massive mercenary force that the Afghan government will never be able to pay for on its own, and should we ever cut their salaries they will turn to warlordism.

In 2009 in Helmand during Obama’s first surge the Afghan army didn’t show up. I was there and listened to angry and impatient American officers. Likewise today in Kandahar the Americans are relying on a warlord, not the Afghan army. Our operations there remind people of the Russians’ brutality. Afghans are being displaced in large numbers once again. We are hated in more and more of Afghanistan. Opinion polls that say otherwise have just been made up. A key element in American counterinsurgency theory is building the government’s capacity. But Karzai is no Maliki. There was no government to start with, unlike in Iraq, and the Karzai government is reviled and has no legitimacy or credibility or presence among most of the population. It is predatory and needs to be starved, not fed. The Americans are creating new militias but they are not former insurgents, and they cannot fight the Taliban.  And past attempts at setting up militias have led to defections to the Taliban. And that’s when the police aren’t defecting to the Taliban. The generals are trying the same thing over and over and expecting new results.

Finally, in Iraq there was a key resource to fight over. Whoever controls the state controls the oil. In Afghanistan, we are the resource. The more money we pour in to a country that can’t absorb it the more we encourage warlords and corruption and a conflict economy. Our very presence is malign and corrosive. Material incentives do not outweigh issues like dignity, nationalism or Islam which matter to Afghans. Too many groups have an interest in perpetuating the conflict. Even the Taliban are benefitting from our money.

The conflict in Afghanistan is a political one and it requires a political settlement. But Petraeus seems to have given up on the hearts and minds approach and is undermining or preventing negotiations, focusing on killing or capturing Taliban commanders. These are easily replaced by younger and more radical Taliban commanders with less ties to the community and less respect for Mullah Omar’s authority, which means it will be even harder to negotiate with them. Meanwhile al Qaeda has moved on to Pakistan and it has evolved into something else. It will never again have training camps that could easily be targeted — it is now an idea and not a base.

We have been surging in Afghanistan every year since 2005. We have been engaged in counterinsurgency since then as well. More and more of the same failed tactic is not going to work. And there is no strategy. The generals are begging for more time, more reviews and moving the goalposts year after year. How many Afghan and American lives are we going to throw away while we experiment with counterinsurgency in a country of no strategic importance? Pity the Afghans if we impose the Iraqi success on them.

Nir Rosen is a fellow at the New York University Center on Law and Security and author of  Aftermath: Following the Bloodshed of America’s Wars in the Muslim World.


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