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January 14, 2009

The Difference Between Afghanistan and Iraq
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

Pat has a great post up on the importance of having a serious and thoughtful debate about troop increases in Afghanistan and the new blog Get Afghanistan Right.  I don't disagree that there needs to be a serious discussion of the issues before a large number of troops are deployed into the region.  And I am not really sold one way or the other on troop increases. 

However, I do think that any discussion, must start with a candid assessment of American interests. And I do think that there is a major difference between the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Particularly in the FATA) and that of Iraq in 2003.  In this case what is going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan does in fact present a direct and immediate threat to American security and interests. 

Over the past few years, pretty much every single major terrorist attack or foiled plot against the U.S. or its allies has in some way involved the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  Obviously there was 9/11.  The 2005 London bombings.   The 2006 plot to blow up Transatlantic flights or the conclusion by Gordon Brown and British counteterrorism officials that "[t]hree-quarters of the most serious terror plots being investigated by UK authorities have links to Pakistan."  Moreover, in the case of the Iraq war there were major disagreements between the Bush administration and the intelligence community over whether there was any real relationship between Al Qaeda and Iraq (There wasn't).  In fact the administration cherry picked and misrepresented intelligence to make it's best case. In the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan it is the Intelligence Community that has lead the way and drawn more attention to the issue, releasing an NIE in 2007 that explicitly made the case that the safe haven on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border represented the single greatest direct threat to the U.S. homeland. 

On top of that, Pakistan, a nuclear state going through dramatic economic and political upheaval, presents a real proliferation threat.  If the situation continues to deteriorate it could call into question the security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.  What doesn't seem very likely is the traditional scenario of an extremist regime taking over the state and using the weapons or giving them to terrorists.   But what is possible is that the lack of security combined with the Al Qaeda elements, leads to some kind of nuclear theft.  Or perhaps there is a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan.  The report by the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by Bob Graham, who was the chair of the Senate Intel Committee in 2002 and voted against the war, came to the same conclusion.  As did CAP's terrorism index survey, where 74% of foreign policy experts thought that Pakistan was the country most likely to transfer nuclear technology to terrorists.

Now, all of this is not meant to scare people.  Nor does the above mean that we should by default send thousands of troops to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.  If there is to be a large troop increase I'd like to see a very specific set of limited goals that responsibly address American interests.  The plan should also include a clear path to accomplishing those goals, a clear exit strategy, and a convincing articulation of why American troops are needed to accomplish these goals.  If that plan cannot be formulated then I wouldn't support a large troop increase, but I do think the Obama administration deserves some time to think this through and present its plans.

In short, the fact that progressives are having this debate is a good thing.  This is a question that must be thought about carefully.  But I do think that it's a much more complicated question than that of going into Iraq in 2003.  The stakes in Afghanistan and Pakistan are much higher today, than they were in Iraq in early 2003.  And the people who are calling for more resources and focus are the intelligence and military professionals - not the political ideologues who were eager to start a war with Iraq.


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There seems to be a lot less scrutiny when it comes to policies on Afghanistan such as increasing the troop levels because it is perceived to be the "good war," and the American people will support that war because Bin Laden is in that country. This completely different from the situation with Iraq War in that because Iraq had nothing to do with 911 and hence is considered to be, and rightly so, a "bad war."

We need to remember that military and intelligence personnel ask for resources to address specific missions, but civilian political personnel develop our national policies and goals. We in the military follow orders from the Commander and Chief with input from other civilian policy makers. So lets have clear goals and missions so we can request the proper resources.

If there is to be a large troop increase I'd like to see a very specific set of limited goals that responsibly address American interests. The plan should also include a clear path to accomplishing those goals, a clear exit strategy, and a convincing articulation of why American troops are needed to accomplish these goals.

Let's focus on Afghanistan. My concern is that with the Obama administration we might find too many advisers, both inside the administration itself and in the orbits of the punditry and think tanks that surround it, who combine the standard US concern with its power interests and national security interests with the traditional liberal focus on "root causes", along with some weakly supported pet theories about the root causes of terrorism, to produce an unrealistic and overly ambitious Afghanistan policy, one aimed at a large-scale pacification and social reconstruction of the entire country.

Many persist in seeing terrorism as some sort social pathology, and have produced many theories as to its root causes. These theories tend to fuse with all of the other things liberal-minded westerners dislike about Afghanistan, such things as:

They are poor;
They have a backward religion in need of reform;
Their women have to wear burkhas;
They don't have a strong central state;
Their agriculture is based too much on opium poppies;

These thinkers then conclude that the US has a compelling national interest in turning Afghanistan into a prosperous, burkha-free, poppy-free, liberal society with a strong central state. And their far-reaching conception of American interests is combined with an extravagant faith in American capabilities that seems to run to the idea that, "We can do anything if we just put our minds to it." No we can't.

I don't view terrorism as an anomalous social pathology. As long as there have been great powers and empires, there have been violent rebel desperadoes eager to take shots at those great powers and empires. We shouldn't be engaged in quixotic quests to cure or heal terrorism, or pull it out for good by its root causes. Nor of course can we simply kill all the terrorists, under the opposite conservative delusion that they all belong to some well-defined organization or cult. What we can do is try to disrupt as much attempted terrorism as we can. There are some organizations, and we can disrupt them. We can build and maintain intelligence capabilities that penetrate deep into the places where terrorists make their plans, and try to nip as many of these plans in the bud as we can, using the more flexible, nimble and covert tools already in play. This will be a permanent effort, one we will have to maintain as long as the United States continues to pursue the path of a great power or superpower, extending its influence abroad.

Afghanistan is a death-trap for the Obama administration. If he is not careful, he will wreck his entire administration, and sink his other equally ambitious, but more achievable, domestic and global policy hopes, the way Lyndon Johnson and George W. Bush did before him, by getting drawn into a futile, overly-ambitious and draining military adventure abroad.

Afghanistan is a death-trap for the Obama administration

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I would say the distressing difference between Afghanistan and Iraq involves the role of Britain. During the Afghan anti-terrorism campaign the British Foreign Office, Ministry of Defense and Prime Minister’s office were instrumental in holding American planners to the path of multilateralism and coalition building. With this check on American hubris seemingly gone, some regional analysts expect the war in Iraq to play out not as a vindication of the civilized world but as a brazen bid for American hegemony in the region....

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