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What Iraq crisis foretells for Afghanistan's future

Jun. 19, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Iraqi Shiite women hold their weapons as they gather to show their willingness to join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities, on Wednesday. (HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP via Getty Images)
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The debate on Capitol Hill over how to respond to the expanding crisis in Iraq isn’t just about the future of that nation, but also about what happens next in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers frustrated with the collapse of government security forces in northern Iraq in the face of a strong jihadist insurgency are drawing clear — and some would argue false — connections to the potential problems Afghanistan will face if U.S. forces fully withdraw from that country over the next two years.

On Thursday, Senate Republicans took turns lambasting President Obama’s foreign policy strategy from the chamber floor, repeatedly returning to the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops in Iraq as a reason for the country’s instability today.

A day earlier, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said that “leaving Afghanistan before the work is done” would result in the same problems that are now flowering in Iraq: emboldened insurgents lying in wait for U.S. troops to depart, leaving easy targets behind.

But Pentagon leaders have pushed back against that comparison. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Wednesday dismissed connections between the two countries’ security situations as “geopolitical graduate school papers” that have a limited grasp of the separate challenges in play.

“First, Afghanistan is not Iraq — internally, historically, ethnically, religiously,” he told members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “Second, there is strong support in Afghanistan today for America’s continued [presence] as well as our NATO ISAF partners’ presence there.

Noting that both presidential candidates in Afghanistan have said they would sign a bilateral security agreement, Hagel said: “There are many, many differences between Iraq and Afghanistan.”

'The real parallel'

Regional experts say linking the two wars and their aftermaths may be simplifying the situation, but said there are some similarities that cannot be completely dismissed.

Sarah Chayes, a former adviser to former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen on Afghanistan and now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said questions of whether U.S. troops should have been left in Iraq longer misses the more important lessons from the conflicts.

“The real parallel for [Iraq and Afghanistan] is that U.S. policy has been focused on building and equipping security forces as the bulwark of defense,” she said. “But in neither place did the United States really take into account that an army is just an instrument in the hand of the government, and it won’t fix anything if that [government] is terribly flawed.”

Chayes said Afghanistan’s young democracy is less likely to be torn apart by sectarian infighting — as Iraq’s is now — as it is to be ruined by pervasive, longer-term corruption.

But the potential result is the same: a well-trained security force disillusioned and unsupported by a dysfunctional central government.

Brookings Institution senior fellow Michael O’Hanlon agrees that Afghanistan is less polarized by political and ethnic turmoil than Iraq, but noted “there is still plenty of potential for trouble” in that nation’s future.

Avoiding 'zero options'

“The most striking [lesson] to me is that ‘zero options’ are bad ideas,” he said. “We need enduring partnerships, not exit strategies at all costs.”

Publicly, at least, Afghanistan’s political leaders seem open to that approach. Both leading presidential hopefuls have pledged to sign a bilateral security agreement to keep U.S. forces in the country past the end of 2014, although delays in the runoff election process could imperil such a deal.

In a June 12 online interview coordinated by the Atlantic Council and Center for American Progress, presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah said “complete disengagement” of foreign forces following conflicts typically has resulted in confusion and chaos for his country.

He also added that his takeaway from Iraq’s current problems “is that sectarian policies will not work anywhere.”

“It’s important that the future government of Afghanistan pursues a policy of reconciliation from one side and delivers to the peaceful citizens who want a peaceful life … so those who are fighting against us will be isolated further,” he said. “It’s not just a military security situation.”

Loss of faith

Dempsey told senators that’s a message Pentagon leaders took to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki again and again, but with little response.

“You can look back at some of our intelligence reports … [many Iraqis] simply lost faith that the central government in Iraq was dealing with the entire population in a fair, equitable way that provided hope for all of them,” he said.

He said Afghanistan appears on a much better path for a truly unified government, but “I can’t completely convince either myself or you that the risk is zero that [similar problems] couldn’t happen in Afghanistan.”

That concern is likely to intensify as the White House works to wind down the broad U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan by the end of the year.

On Tuesday, outgoing White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated that the new problems in Iraq have not forced a rethinking of American military policy in Afghanistan, saying they are separate countries with separate challenges.

But he did acknowledge that “we obviously have invested a lot of resources and paid a heavy price in both countries” over the past 13 years.

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