The Complex

Iraq Is Afghanistan Prologue for Some Senators

Hanging over the confirmation hearing Thursday for the next U.S. commander in Afghanistan was not the country’s disputed election or its widespread corruption, both of which threaten to unravel any progress the United States has made there. Instead, Gen. John Campbell faced questions about Iraq, where, in parts of the country, militants from the Islamic ...

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Hanging over the confirmation hearing Thursday for the next U.S. commander in Afghanistan was not the country’s disputed election or its widespread corruption, both of which threaten to unravel any progress the United States has made there.

Instead, Gen. John Campbell faced questions about Iraq, where, in parts of the country, militants from the Islamic State have overrun security forces trained by the United States at a cost of more than $25 billion. Now it’s believed that, without help, the Iraqi security forces will be unable to retake areas seized by the Islamic State.

But not so long ago, U.S. military officials were confident in the capabilities of the units they were training in Iraq and would update Congress and the media about the progress they were making in building those units’ capacity.

What members of the Senate Armed Services Committee heard Thursday morning about the Afghan military — that it’s capable and mostly responsible for the largely nonviolent elections that took place in April and June — sounds eerily familiar. And they fear that as U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan, what’s happening in Iraq is a preview of what could happen in Afghanistan.

"I watch and analyze the mistakes in Iraq, and I think many of them are going to come to pass in Afghanistan," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), referencing the failures of the Iraqi Army but also the facilities, roads, and governance structures that the United States rebuilt in Iraq and that have since fallen apart or fallen to the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS.

And now some of the military equipment left behind by the United States is also in the Islamic State’s control.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked Lt. Gen. Joseph Votel, the nominee to take over U.S. Special Operations Command, whether it’s true that the Islamic State has moved U.S. armored vehicles — known as MRAPs — out of Iraq and into Syria.

Votel said that "at a classified level" he has seen reports that would indicate equipment is moving across the "former border between Iraq and Syria." Votel currently serves as head of Joint Special Operations Command, which carries out the military’s most top-secret missions.

The equipment seizure means that the moderate rebel groups supported by the United States in Syria will be facing an enemy armed with U.S. equipment stolen in Iraq.

To keep Afghanistan from going down a similar road, lawmakers asked Campbell to provide his own independent assessment of how quickly U.S. troops should leave Afghanistan, even if it means keeping them stationed beyond President Barack Obama’s goal of a complete withdrawal by 2017.

"I would suggest that one of your missions is to continue to assess the readiness and the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces, because it wasn’t ISIS so much as the collapse of the Iraqi Army that led to the debacle that’s currently unfolding in Iraq," said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).

Another concern is whether the ethnic makeup of the Afghan security forces will threaten their cohesion in the absence of U.S. presence like it has in the Iraqi security forces.

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) noted that many of the generals the United States trained in Iraq were later replaced by people with political connections to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.

"We want to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen in Afghanistan," he said.

Seeking to reassure the committee, Campbell responded: "I don’t want to see what’s happening in Iraq today happen in Afghanistan."

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued last week that the collapse of the security forces in Iraq didn’t happen overnight and that their defeat in cities such as Mosul was about more than a lack of military capability. Some of the Iraqi soldiers were bribed or bullied into laying down their arms by the Islamic State, he said.

"They undermined [the Iraqi security forces] by stripping away their will to fight for a government that didn’t support them," Dempsey said on July 3. "They didn’t collapse in the face of a fight. They collapsed in the face of a future that didn’t hold out any hope for them."

For McCaskill, both Iraq and Afghanistan represent proof that the U.S. love affair with counterinsurgency strategy has been a disaster.

"We put a Band-Aid on a cancer," she said, describing how the U.S. military was able to impose order in Iraq while it was in the country, but that it all fell apart once U.S. troops left.

And in Afghanistan, "I think you’re being given an impossible task," she told Campbell.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. Twitter: @K8brannen

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