The Agenda

Is Afghanistan Tougher Than Iraq?

Daniel Drezner says yes.

The thing is, Afghanistan is very, very different from Iraq.  As tough a nut as state-building is in Iraq, it’s a country with fewer ethnic and linguistic divisions, better infrastructure, a better educated citizenry, more natural endowments, and a longer history of relative “stability” than Afghanistan.  Whatever you think about the surge strategy, the odds of success in Afghanistan are lower than in Iraq.

I’m a huge fan of Drezner, but I strongly disagree. While Afghanistan has ethnic and linguistic divisions, it also has a fairly long history as a coherent state. And as Steve Coll has argued, the Soviets came very close to succeeding in Afghanistan by “Afghan-izing” the conflict and building on a shared sense of national identity. Iraq, in contrast, saw the subjugation of the majority Shia Arabs by Sunni Arabs, genocidal warfare against the Kurds, a deliberate policy of “retribalization,” deliberate Stalin-like settlement of impoverished Shia Arabs from urban centers in the south to urban centers in historically Kurdish territory, and much else besides. One can make a strong case that Iraq’s political culture has been thoroughly poisoned, whereas support for the Afghan central government remains fairly broad-based — they key issue is that the central government can’t provide security. Meanwhile, Iraq risks unraveling as a revanchist Shia majority strengthens the grip of a central government that is increasingly not seen as legitimate by members of the Sunni minority.

In his testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, Marin Strmecki, who has worked on Afghanistan policy for the last two decades, noted the following:

As we approach this challenge, it is vital to understand what conditions produced stability in Afghanistan in recent history and what dynamics underlie the instability of recent decades. Too often, commentators mistakenly take the view that Afghanistan has been either ungovernable throughout history or has lacked a central government whose reach extended throughout its territory. In fact, until the late 1970s, Afghanistan had been a relatively stable developing country for much of the twentieth century. It was a poor country, to be sure, but one with a state that carried out basic governmental functions and that enabled gradual political and economic progress.

Strmecki goes on to observe that Afghanistan’s stability was undergirded by the perception that its government was legitimate, particularly during the reign of Zahir Shah; the relative strength of Afghan security institutions; and the tacit agreement among regional powers that Afghanistan be preserved as a buffer state. The goal of U.S. policy over the long-term is to restore these conditions, and that is not a goal that’s out of reach.

And as John Robb argued in the New York Times in 2005, Iraq’s relatively advanced infrastructure actually enhanced the lethality of what he called “the open-source insurgency.”   

New technologies and tactics move rapidly from one end of the insurgency to the other, aided by Iraq’s relatively advanced communications and transportation grid – demonstrated by the rapid increases in the sophistication of the insurgents’ homemade bombs. This implies that the insurgency’s innovation cycles are faster than the American military’s slower bureaucratic processes (for example: its inability to deliver sufficient body and vehicle armor to our troops in Iraq).

Counterinsurgency is extremely difficult under any circumstances. It is by no means obvious that it is easier in societies that are heavily urbanized than in rural societies, like postwar Malaya. 

But I take Daniel’s broader point, which is that we should avoid lazy analogies. Afghanistan is definitely not Iraq and thus our strategy will have to be very different. I just think we actually have more to work with in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

I’ll also add that it is insane to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign for kicks. I understated the case when I said counterinsurgency is “extremely difficult”: it is extremely, extremely, extremely difficult, and we should only do it if the alternative is miserably, nightmarishly bad. I happen to think it is, but smart people can disagree on this.

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular