War Stories

Afghanistan Isn’t Like Iraq

Why a “surge” won’t work there.

A checkpoint in Afghanistan

Republican presidential candidate John McCain said in a speech last July, “It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan.”

We will soon find out if this is true.

Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the surge, is about to become chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military forces in all South Asia and the Persian Gulf. If McCain’s comment is valid, Petraeus will simply do in Afghanistan what he did in Iraq, and victory will be ours. QED.

The problem is, the conditions that made the surge succeed in Iraq to a limited degree (more on that caveat later) are very different from those in Afghanistan—so much so that the tactics employed in the one country have little relevance to the other.

It is indisputable that security in Iraq has improved. Casualties, insurgent attacks, and roadside bombings have greatly diminished. However, the surge is not the only—and probably not the main—cause of these trends.

The biggest cause was the “Sunni Awakening,” in which Sunni tribes reached out to form alliances with U.S. forces—at the tribal leaders’ initiative, before the surge began—in order to beat back the Islamist jihadists of al-Qaida in Iraq, whom they had come to hate more than they hated the American occupiers. Petraeus promoted this development by paying other Sunni militiamen who joined their ranks. (He had pacified Mosul in just this way in the early days of the occupation, until the money ran out and the Bush administration didn’t give him more, at which point Mosul went up in flames.)

To the extent that the surge played a role, it wasn’t so much the surge itself—the infusion of 25,000 extra U.S. combat troops—but rather what Petraeus ordered those troops to do. Rather than stationing them on remote superbases, as his predecessor had done, he put them in the neighborhoods to mix with the Iraqi people, earn their trust, gather intelligence, and try to keep them secure. In Baghdad especially, they also built massive walls throughout the city, physically separating the warring ethnic factions.

But the situation in Iraq bears little resemblance to that of Afghanistan. Barnett Rubin, a professor at New York University and author of several books about the country, spells out some of the differences:

Iraq’s insurgency is based in Iraq; Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents are based mainly across the border in Pakistan. Iraq is urban, educated, and has great wealth, at least potentially, in its oil supplies; Afghanistan is rural, largely illiterate, and ranks as one of the world’s five poorest countries. Iraq has some history as a cohesive nation (albeit as the result of a minority ruling sect oppressing the majority); Afghanistan never has and, given its geography, perhaps never will.

Moreover, the Taliban’s insurgency is ideological, not ethno-sectarian (except incidentally). Therefore, while some warlords and tribes have allied themselves with the Taliban for opportunistic or nationalistic reasons, and therefore might be peeled away and co-opted, the conditions are not ripe for some sort of Taliban or Pashtun “Awakening.” Nor is there any place where walls might isolate the insurgents.

Is the situation in Afghanistan hopeless, then? Not entirely. But any realistic hopes hinge on understanding something crucial about the surge in Iraq—it has not yet “succeeded,” in any meaningful sense of the word.

Petraeus understands this. At his farewell ceremony as commander of multinational forces in Iraq, he said, “I don’t like to use words like victory or defeat,” and this remark did not stem from modesty. As anyone who’s read Clausewitz knows, war is fought for political aims—it is not won until those aims are achieved—and this war’s aims are not yet within sight: a stable, self-sustaining, democratic Iraq whose government is an ally in the war on terror.

To the contrary, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government is in bed with Iran (the real winner of this war so far); it is not remotely ready to manage internal tensions or defend its borders; Kurdish impulses toward secession and expansion threaten renewed sectarian conflict with the Sunni Arabs; and, by resisting pressure to bring the “Sons of Iraq”—the Sunni militias that have been flipped to our side—into the national army, Maliki jeopardizes the modicum of political progress that has been accomplished.

In Afghanistan, the political goal is, in some ways, less ambitious: Nobody’s aiming for democracy here; a cohesive national government would be remarkable enough—an unprecedented phenomenon—whatever the regime’s nature. But the goal, in other ways, is also more difficult—to keep the Taliban or al-Qaida from once again using Afghan territory as a base of terrorist operations.

However, this aim is but a subset of a larger goal: to keep these same terrorists from destabilizing—or taking power in—Pakistan, a development that would be far more dangerous, because of Pakistan’s more bountiful resources, not least its arsenal of nuclear weapons.

In this wider context, the Bush administration’s recent actions—bombing Taliban targets in Pakistan and even mounting cross-border raids on the ground, without permission from Pakistan’s political leaders—are wildly risky. The temptation to run these operations is understandable; the Taliban and al-Qaida have sanctuaries in the tribal areas of western Pakistan, allowing them to cross into Afghanistan with impunity. (For a frightening description of just how rampant this practice has become, see Dexter Filkins’ recent article in the New York Times Magazine.)

However, any tactical advantage reaped from killing jihadists across the border is far outweighed by the strategic disaster unleashed as a result of intensifying anti-American sentiment, radicalizing the Pakistani population, and further alienating—possibly destabilizing—its new civilian government. (Picture an Islamist Khmer Rouge with nukes.)

Pakistan is not a sideshow to Afghanistan. It is the main show, dwarfing every other problem in the region. To deal with it, we can do one of two things. We can declare war on Pakistan—an option for which we lack the will, the allies, the resources, the troops, and (let’s hope) the sheer suicidal idiocy. Or we can coordinate a region-wide campaign of pressures and incentives—political, economic, diplomatic, and military—with as many concerned powers as possible, including, yes, the Shiite leaders of Iran, who must have less interest than even we do in seeing radical Sunni jihadists take over huge chunks, if not all, of Pakistan.

In the meantime (because dealing with Pakistan is a long-term proposition, at best), what to do inside Afghanistan? Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, recently told Congress that he doesn’t have enough troops to carry out his mission. Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has long advocated sending in three more combat brigades, as the drawdown of troops in Iraq gets under way, a proposal that McCain and now even Bush officials have endorsed.

This troop increase (it’s a bit paltry to be labeled a surge) would have some effect. It would let McKiernan interdict some of those Taliban border crossings, on the Afghan side, without depending so heavily on airstrikes, a practice that has resulted in hundreds of civilian casualties and thus alienated the Afghan people, whose trust we need to be gaining.

The ultimate military goal—one lesson from Petraeus’ strategy in Iraq that is worth learning and might be applicable—is to protect the Afghan population, and that requires putting a lot of troops in the neighborhoods of towns and villages, to provide security and build trust. It might be possible to do this in Afghanistan, just as it was done in many Iraqi neighborhoods with one important difference—it has to be done by the Afghan National Army, not by us.

There are a few reasons for this. First, we simply can’t do it. Stephen Biddle—a military analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, who was an adviser on some aspects of Iraq strategy—estimates that securing the Afghan population would require about 500,000 troops. That’s 10 times the combined number of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan now. We don’t have anywhere near this level of manpower to spare (the three extra U.S. brigades under consideration would amount to about 12,000 troops), and even if we did, and even if we wanted to send them, we’d have no way to maintain them. (In Iraq, Saddam Hussein left behind a robust logistical network, including paved highways and lots of air bases with long runways; Afghanistan has nothing of the sort.)

Second, unlike in Iraq—where sectarian clashes required U.S. troops to step in (Sunnis wouldn’t trust Shiite troops, and Shiites wouldn’t trust Sunni troops)—the Afghan army is seen as, and actually is, a national institution. Given the right resources, it could do the job.

And that leads to something that we and other countries could do—pour lots and lots of money into Afghanistan, so the government can equip, train, and pay a much larger national army. (Most of the NATO allies don’t want to fight in Afghanistan, for understandable reasons; but maybe they could be persuaded to help fund the fight.) Some foreign troops would still be necessary, to train, advise, and provide intelligence and air support—but this is, and can only be, the Afghan people’s fight.

Petraeus knows how to manage this kind of operation. The Army’s field manual on counterinsurgency, which he supervised, emphasizes that indigenous armies must play the predominant role. The manual also stresses that counterinsurgency campaigns, by nature, vary according to the local situation. What works in one place, even to a limited degree, may be useless in some other place.

In short, contrary to Sen. McCain, the surge in Iraq—even if it were as successful as he believes—does not show the way to victory in Afghanistan, and anyone who knows about Iraq, Afghanistan, or counterinsurgency would know that.