Why Afghanistan Will Not Become Iraq: Differences and US Interests

The United States is preparing to conclude combat operations in Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and maintain a residual training force there for two years.  With terrorist activity at highest levels since the United States invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, many US lawmakers and policy analysts are questioning the conclusion of combat operations in Afghanistan.  With the news developing over the past week involving the fall of western Iraq to militants who have set their sights on the nation’s capital, it is fair to ask, will Afghanistan suffer the same fate?  If all the pieces fall into place correctly, the answer is no.  Here’s why.

What Happened in Iraq

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, in the words of Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, “the United States made matters worse by handing control of Iraq’s new governmental organs over to the warlords.”  Following the provisional, haphazard government, the US was looking for a formidable leader they could put in Saddam’s place who would be sympathetic to US values and serve as an ally in a region where the United States does not have many friends.  As Dexter Filkins of the New Yorker recounted, the United States sought to block the election of a member of Iraqi parliament from becoming the majority leader, as he did not align with the administration.  In scrambling to find a replacement, high ranking US officials chose Nouri al-Maliki, an unknown figure to many in the administration and the United States.  Though the US ambassador at the time did not admit to “choosing” Maliki, the backing and influence of the United States significantly contributed to Maliki’s rise to power and his becoming Iraq’s new prime minister.

The administration was stuck with their selection, and once in power Maliki went on a massive retribution campaign against Sunnis for years of oppression and marginalization the Saddam regime inflicted on Maliki’s Shiites.  Maliki barred Sunnis from government and other public positions.  His alienation of the largest Muslim denomination in the Middle East contributed to an uprising of Sunnis against Shiites, harboring anti-government fervor and provided fuel for radical Islam.

In the north, the semiautonomous Kurdish region has fought recently with Baghdad over oil exports as the Kurds sit on some of the world’s largest oil fields.  The Kurds have begun exporting oil to Turkey via a pipeline, which is against the law because all oil exports must go through Baghdad.  Iraq had threatened to appeal to the United Nations if the Kurds did not stop.

To make matters worse, the United States could not negotiate a status of forces (SOF) agreement with the Maliki government in order to keep a residual troop force post-withdrawal to continue to train Iraqi troops.  It appeared as though Maliki was going rogue, distancing himself from the United States and cozying up to Shiite Iran (where Maliki lived and studied for some time), though some reports indicate he had also upset Iran indicating he had grown drunk with power.  Maliki had learned the hard way that not negotiating an SOF was the wrong decision and urged Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) with the US.  Maliki continued to ask the United States for equipment, and military aid, which for the most part the United States complied.  However US Senators held up Apache helicopters and M-16 shipments to Iraq for fear Maliki would use them against his own people, mainly Sunnis.

Afghanistan Post-2014 

The two front runners in the elections to succeed President Hamid Karzai have stated they will sign a BSA, which will keep US troops in Afghanistan to train Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) in counterterrorism and to fly military aircraft.  By keeping this residual force, the United States will ensure Afghan forces will have the training, knowledge, and capabilities to quell uprisings and terrorist activity unlike forces in Iraq.

Also, most importantly, Afghanistan is currently holding elections and the United States has left this responsibility to the Afghans.  The first round went very well with good turnout and little terror disruption, despite treats.  Unlike Iraq in 2006, the United States has stayed out of the Afghan elections.  A strong and unified central government will deter vacuums in which terrorism thrives.  Problems will arise in Afghanistan if the new leader either does not sign a BSA, or they get comfortable with the Taliban.

US Interests

As Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby stated earlier this week regarding the troubling situation in Iraq, “Ultimately, this is for the Iraqi security forces, and the Iraqi government to deal with.”  The Putin model seen in Crimea of you break it, you own it, is not the model between the United States and Iraq.  Iraq has pushed the United States out and is suffering the consequences though the United States has remained committed to Iraq despite not establishing an SOF.  President Obama has stated he has not ruled anything out in helping quell the situation in Iraq and the State Department announced yesterday it will pledge “$12.8 million to international organization partners working to meet the needs of internally displaced persons and conflict victims in Iraq.”  The United States has also maintained it will stick by Afghanistan after troops withdraw and continue to remain a strong partner.

The situation in Afghanistan is different from that of Iraq.  Things went wrong in Iraq because the United States military is not a police force and struggled to maintain order after the toppling of the government.  Furthermore, it is important to identify what victory is.  The United States can claim victory against terrorist forces who attacked the US homeland on 9/11, the group the US officially authorized force against, despite several splinter groups rising to prominence recently.  With proper troop training and a strong, democratically elected leader, Afghanistan will be an important US partner in the Middle East.  Iraq did not have an adequate central government.  If Afghanistan can maintain a strong central government, garnering support from key Afghan ethnic groups, it should not suffer the same fate.