The South Asia Channel
Afghanistan Is Not Iraq
The Taliban’s temporary occupation of Kunduz coupled with Obama's new plan to halt U.S. withdrawal makes Afghanistan look like a repeat of the Iraq War. On the ground, the realities are quite different.
The Taliban’s seizure of large swaths of Kunduz province has recaptured the overdue attention of the West. However, the events have also created chatter that Afghanistan is spiraling into the next Iraq. Without recognizing the fundamental differences between the two situations, such conjecture is not only misplaced but damaging to the morale of the Afghan mission. There are three main reasons that explain why Iraq’s ethnic-based stalemate does not resemble the unfolding events in Afghanistan and why a future similar to Iraq is by no means inevitable in Afghanistan.
First, unlike Iraq, the new Afghan government signed a security pact with the United States on its first day in office, which was unanimously supported by the Afghan people. Today, Afghan forces receive valuable training, assistance, and advisory support from their U.S. and NATO partners. In contrast, Iraq’s failure to reach a security agreement with the United States has led to the rapid destabilization in the country and the emergence of ISIS. More importantly, the Afghan unity government, however weak, enjoys widespread legitimacy among the Afghan people, an area where the Iraqi government struggles. A poll conducted by D3 Systems in Iraq last year found that 42 percent of Iraqis surveyed believe the decisions made by the Iraqi government are illegitimate and can therefore be ignored. Additionally, unlike Afghan leaders who formed and maintained a unity government after last year’s disputed election, Iraq’s major interethnic political alliance, al-Iraqiya, disbanded a year after its formation.
Second, the Afghan security forces enjoy a staggering level of support and confidence among the Afghan people. According to the Asia Foundation’s 2014 survey, almost 87 percent of Afghans have confidence in the army and over 73 percent in the police. In contrast, only 40 percent of Iraqis polled in the D3 Systems survey had a favorable view of the Iraqi security forces (Shiite Arabs held a largely positive view at 57 percent compared to Sunni Arabs at just 14 percent).
Crucially, the ranks of the 340,000-strong U.S.-trained Afghan security forces reflect the diverse ethnic composition of the country and pledge to defend the Afghan state. By comparison, Iraqi security forces are tainted by serious sectarian cleavages and divided loyalties. For instance, Iraq’s ethnic Sunni forces refuse to fight the anti-Shiite Islamic State, and elements within the Sunni militias have now joined forces with the Islamic State and regularly attack the government, their once ally against al Qaeda. Furthermore, Iraq’s Sunni population has been systematically marginalized by the country’s Shiite leaders. Iraq’s former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, alienated, detained, and purged many Sunni political and military leaders, freed Shiite prisoners, and installed pro-Iran Shiite leaders to key cabinet seats. It was almost predictable that 30,000 Iraqi forces would capitulate to roughly 800 Islamic State fighters in Ramadi in May 2015.
Third, despite Afghan’s sense of anxiety amid the drawdown of U.S. forces, they hold a surprising optimism about the future of their country. Undeterred by grinding poverty, corruption, and criminality, almost 55 percent of Afghans in the Asia Foundation survey think their country is moving in the right direction. However, that number is likely going to be a bit lower in the upcoming survey, because the drawdown, economic transition, and unemployment have caused many young Afghans to leave the country. By contrast, 62 percent of Iraqi respondents in the D3 Systems poll had negative views about the direction of their country; an astounding 83 percent of Sunni Arabs and 50 percent Shiite Arabs.
Indeed, challenges remain. This is the first fighting season where the nascent Afghan forces are largely operating on their own. With their limited resources and capabilities, Afghan forces have provided security across the country, thwarted major attacks, independently carried out high-level kinetic operations, and have secured major population centers. Statistics provided by the Pentagon show that this year nearly 4,700 Afghan soldiers have been killed in combat and another 7,800 suffered injuries, a significant increase from last year. The lack of key enablers in Afghan forces, including close air support, medical evacuation, logistics, and aerial surveillance has added to the rising casualty numbers. Additionally, efforts to prop up the burgeoning Afghan air force by using Russian transport helicopters and gunships have faltered because of Western sanctions on Russia, and although the Afghan air force has a mini fleet of small U.S.-supplied scout helicopters, it has neither the range nor the firepower to be effective in combat.
While the Taliban may make sporadic tactical gains through minor territory grabs, it does not mean Afghanistan will collapse. In the Kunduz event, the Taliban reportedly used local people as human shields and went door-to-door to coerce young men to join their ranks, which made it hard for Afghan forces to deploy artillery and air power. However, the troubles in Kunduz should have been anticipated; the province has been under semi-siege ever since the Taliban — aided by the Central Asian militants — surrounded the city a few months ago. The Afghan government’s negligence to either boost Kunduz’s defenses or stage preemptive strikes was an intelligence failure on both the Afghan side and on the part of the small German military contingent stationed there to raise alarms.
Undeniably, the Kunduz episode will be touted as an important propaganda victory for the Taliban, especially for its new leader as he consolidates his grip on power. But to speculate that Afghanistan can turn into the next Iraq without acknowledging the real differences in ground realities between the two is an unrealistic comparison. Kunduz is a stark reminder for Washington that ignoring Afghanistan is reckless and the Obama administration appears to have acknowledged that U.S. troop withdrawal timeline should be driven by conditions on the ground. The announcement today by President Obama to halt additional troop withdrawal and to maintain the current force level through the end of his term is a good step in that direction.
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images