The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan Is Not Iraq … Just Ask the Afghan People

The recently manifested massive failure of America’s intervention in Iraq has led outside observers to speculate that the ongoing rapid drawdown of international military forces in Afghanistan will lead to similar chaos in that country. Ahmed Rashid, a respected commentator on Afghanistan security issues and author of the superb book Taliban, wrote in a recent ...


The recently manifested massive failure of America’s intervention in Iraq has led outside observers to speculate that the ongoing rapid drawdown of international military forces in Afghanistan will lead to similar chaos in that country.

Ahmed Rashid, a respected commentator on Afghanistan security issues and author of the superb book Taliban, wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed that the U.S. troop withdrawal plan formulated in 2009 "is proving catastrophically wrong now." Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham warned two months ago: "If the President repeats his mistakes from Iraq and withdraws all U.S. troops from Afghanistan, based on a certain date on a calendar, we fear a similar failure will unfold … as we have seen Iraq."

The Asia Foundation’s just-released 2014 Survey of the Afghan People, however, indicates that while the Afghans do worry about the future of their country, they by no means share the deep pessimism of the foreign prophets of doom who assert that it is only a matter of time until the disaster on the Euphrates is repeated on the Kabul River. Comparing the attitudes of the Afghan and Iraqi people on key political, security, and economic issues helps explain why this is so.

The Asia Foundation’s annual survey, first conducted in 2004 — less than three years after the fall of the Taliban — is the longest running and broadest nationwide poll of Afghan attitudes and opinions, this year including interviews of over 9,000 citizens from all 34 of the country’s provinces. While there is no single polling of the Iraqi people similar in regularity and scope, there have been several surveys conducted since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that do permit credible cross-country analysis. Three striking differences are evident when comparing results.

First, the Afghan people have a far higher degree of trust in their security forces — army and police — than do their Iraqi counterparts. Some 86 percent of the Afghan people interviewed in this year’s Asia Foundation survey expressed confidence in their national army, and 73 percent in their national police force. The degree of confidence is contingent upon levels of local violence, but is generally favorable and improving across the country.

In Iraq, on the other hand, according to a poll conducted in May 2014 by D3 Systems, only 40 percent of those questioned agreed with the statement that their army and police are doing a good job in providing for their security.* Moreover, there were sharp differences among ethnic group responses: Shia Arabs at 57 percent, Kurds at 38 percent, and Sunni Arabs at a dismal 14 percent.

The Afghan government, United States, and international military coalition have remained committed since early 2002 to building national security forces whose ranks reflect the ethnic composition of the country, emphasizing accountability, and resisting occasional political urges to field large scale militias. In Iraq, the same enterprise was fatally compromised by the early disbandment of the existing army, the so-called Anbar Awakening that mobilized tens of thousands of Sunni militia outside of the national army, and the semi-independence enjoyed by the Kurdish Peshmerga security forces since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The consequences of pretending the Iraq army was a national force were evident this past June when less than 1000 ISIS fighters put to flight some thirty times their number.

A people’s security begins with trust in the forces assigned the mission of protecting them. Afghanistan’s national army and police, for now, appear to have earned a modicum of that trust. Iraq’s security forces, most decidedly, have not.

Second, while almost all of the Afghan people are victimized by government and societal corruption (some 62 percent report it as a major problem in their daily lives), this year an impressive 75 percent say the national government does a somewhat good or very good job, and about two-thirds indicate that their provincial governments are doing a good job (67 percent), followed by municipal authorities (58 percent) and district governments (56 percent).

Again, the Iraqi people’s attitudes toward their government stand in sharp relief. The same poll mentioned previously finds 42 percent of those surveyed stating that decisions made by the Iraq government are illegitimate and thus may be ignored by citizens (again, with different ethnic attitudes evident: Shia Arabs at 31 percent, Kurds at 39 percent, and Sunni Arabs at 66 percent).

Stanford professor Francis Fukuyama has written that political power is not just a result of the resources and numbers of citizens that a society can command but also the degree to which the legitimacy of leaders and institutions is recognized. Afghanistan’s government structure does enjoy foundational legitimacy, albeit still weak and fragile. The Iraq government, by comparison, is resting on quicksand.

Third, and last, Afghan citizens are surprisingly optimistic, with 54 percent saying the country is moving in the right direction; though this number is down slightly from last year, in spite of annual fluctuations, the long-term trend since 2006 is upward. At odds were the results of the D3 Systems May 2014 poll, with 62 percent of the respondents indicating Iraq was moving in the wrong direction (50 percent of Shia Arabs, 61 percent of Kurds, and a whopping 83 percent of Sunnis — with half of those Sunnis surveyed indicating they thought a civil war was likely to start within the next year). Iraqi pessimism is pronounced, even when compared with views expressed in BBC surveys during the 2007 U.S.-led military surge when only between 30 to 35 percent of those participating anticipated better conditions in the coming year.

It is a well-known maxim that capital is a coward that runs from conflict, uncertainty, and poor governance. The Afghan people still believe their country offers the prospect of a positive return on their political and economic investments; in Iraq, time horizons are short and planning is, at best, tactical.

Afghanistan’s post-Taliban and Iraq’s post-Saddam destinies are both uncertain. We know that without the continuation of significant levels of foreign developmental aid and security assistance, the Afghan state will likely collapse. Even with continued external support, the future is problematic, though the country, government, and security forces are more cohesive than many outsiders realize.

We also know that outside help in any shape or form cannot guarantee an end to Iraq’s internal disorder and bloodletting that to date have proven the most consequential outcome of America’s 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation. If there is any room for confidence, the Iraqi people are not expressing it when asked.

However, while admitting that we can’t predict either of the countries’ fates, we should not — in our frustration with the disappointing results of two protracted difficult wars — conclude the situations are identical, and that both are illustrations of the folly of industrial strength American interventionism.

In Iraq, unquestionably the United States has contributed to a good part of the chaos there today.

In Afghanistan, on the other hand, our actions have helped end years of brutal civil war and overturn a feudal regime that imprisoned half of its population and rejected scientific learning. In coming decades, historians with the benefit of full access to the archives and the dispassion that only comes with time, may conclude that the United States spent far too much of its treasure in Afghanistan after 9/11 and that the strategic opportunity costs were excessive. Yet, those decisions — whether right or wrong — were made some time ago.

The Afghan people, though, are still today saying that they believe in the state, security institutions, and future that they, with much help and sacrifice from the United States and international community, have helped to create.

Karl W. Eikenberry is the William J. Perry fellow in international security at Stanford University, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and a trustee of the Asia Foundation.

*Correction (Nov. 19, 2014): The D3 Systems poll was conducted in May 2014 and released in June 2014. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the month in which the poll was conducted. (Return to reading.)

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