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Have We Not Learned from Iraq?


Today, the Guardian reports “Britain and US prepared to open talks with the Taliban.” The article, if accurate, should confirm many of our gathering fears that NATO, the U.K., and potentially even the U.S., are looking for the easy way out of a tough fight in Afghanistan.

I’ve never served in Afghanistan, but the principles of what creates conditions for substantive and fruitful “talks” with the enemy are consistent, especially when confronting radical Islamists hell-bent on imposing their distorted view of the world. In Iraq, only after the insurgency was brought to its knees — with overwhelming military force before and during the Surge — were former Sunni insurgents brought into the fold, willfully rejecting the sway of foreign insurgent leaders. Admittedly, the task in Iraq was made easier by the fact that most rank-and-file Iraqis had joined the insurgency more out of opportunity and necessity, than out of ideology.

In Afghanistan, however, Taliban/al-Qaeda leaders and fighters are more engrained in the influential tribal networks, making the task of “ending the insurgency” all the more contingent upon both killing the hardcore fighters, and marginalizing the rest through sustained, and properly resourced, counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. Unfortunately, whoever is initiating discussions with “second tier” Taliban fighters, hasn’t learned much from the positive developments in Iraq, which included a healthy dose of both killing and COIN.

The most disturbing section of the articles reads,

They [senior ministers and commanders] are hoping that Britain’s continuing military presence in Helmand, strengthened by the arrival of thousands of US troops, will encourage Taliban commanders to end the insurgency. There is even talk in London and Washington of a military “exit strategy”.

This twisted logic reeks of both military naivety (troops will “encourage” an end to the insurgency”) and diminishing political will (exit-strategy talk in D.C.) — a dangerous one-two punch that will certainly bring about a bad result in Afghanistan. We were very close to this same result in Iraq (think late 2006 and the Iraq Study Group). The beltway intelligencia told us that handing the job over to Iraqi Security Forces, all the while drawing down our presence, was the best approach.

The same misguided assumptions are at play here — the belief that our forces can temporarily, and modestly, increase troop levels while at the same time talking about an exit strategy; and as a result, militants will just drop their weapons and give up. To the contrary, insurgents know we don’t have enough troops, they believe we don’t have the stomach to sustain the fight, and are fully aware there aren’t nearly enough trained and motivated Afghan security forces to take over.

This combination creates conditions for exactly the outcome NATO and U.S. forces don’t want — a stronger insurgency. You can’t negotiate from a position of weakness (or stalemate) while talking “exit strategy” and expect the enemy to give up. They won’t; we’ll leave, and they’ll win.

Afghanistan is a tough nut to crack, and the Obama administration started in the right direction with an increase in troops, new leadership on the ground, and a commitment to counterinsurgency. But change doesn’t happen overnight, and Obama’s military and diplomatic leaders need to avoid the temptation to grasp for the finish line before the heavy lifting is done.

More to come on this . . .


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