On the ten-year anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, people around the world are looking back on a controversial decade of war in the Middle East. Unfortunately, almost two years since American combat operations concluded in July 2011, there is little to celebrate. A corrupt, weak government struggles to maintain political order from Baghdad while sectarian violence claims civilian lives daily and threatens to draw the country into the growing conflict in neighboring Syria.
While reminiscing on the war that was, it is critical to think of the on-going war in Afghanistan to which the Iraq war is so closely linked.
To begin with, it is now conventional wisdom that the situation in Afghanistan was allowed to deteriorate from 2003 to 2008 because of the war in Iraq. After ousting the Taliban with overwhelming force in the days after 2001, the Bush administration drew its attention and resources away from Afghanistan. The lack of U.S. support during those pivotal early years allowed the Taliban to recuperate in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan and launch an insurgency against the U.S.-supported government in Kabul in 2005 that persists to this day.
The two wars shared similarly poor political planning after the invasions. Unlike Iraq, a country that had a functioning, albeit authoritarian, government, Afghanistan possessed little functioning governance before 2001. Without a clear plan for or any real interest in developing effective public institutions, the U.S. looked for another regime to overthrow in the name of counterterrorism rather than build a functioning Afghan political system.
The deteriorating situations were met by the same flawed U.S. military response. In the face of growing congressional and public outrage over the course of the war in Iraq, President Bush doubled-down and send more troops in 2006. The U.S. embraced a counterinsurgency strategy and put General David Petraeus in charge of the mission. The outcome of the "surge" continues to be debated by pundits across the political spectrum, yet few outside of hawkish circles believe it was truly a success. One only needs to look at the currently tenuous situation in Iraq as evidence of its strategic failure.
President Barack Obama decided to replicate the counterinsurgency strategy in the vastly different social and political environment of Afghanistan in 2009. Four years later, U.S. troops are leaving and the situation in Kabul looks hauntingly similar to Baghdad: humanitarian and security gains around the countryside appear to be tenuous and reversible at best, the government's corruption and inefficiency rob it of much-needed legitimacy and the insurgency and ethnic tensions continue to wreak havoc. All of this portends the possibility of greater conflict once the United States and the international community withdraw militarily in 2014.
This is where the similarities between the two wars could end. While there are many differences between the two, the one that may matter most is that the U.S. war in Iraq is over but American engagement with the crisis in Afghanistan continues. There is little that the United States can do to have a positive impact on Iraq's future right now. The U.S. lacks influence in Baghdad because of its legacy of a decade of bloody war, occupation and disappointment. American relations with the Afghan government, in contrast, are fragile, especially after Afghan President Hamid Karzai's recent accusations, but there is still time for the U.S. to support the future of Afghanistan and the wider region.
Thus far, the Obama administration has failed to address the future of its engagement with Afghanistan outside the realm of the military transition. The president has been clear to tell the public what it wants to hear: local forces are taking over, al Qaeda is no longer a threat in that part of the world, and the troops are coming home. While this is all welcome news, the administration's efforts to spin the withdrawal into a limited victory fails to open space to articulate a meaningful policy to address the other political and economic challenges Afghanistan will continue to face in coming years.
No doubt many of these painful comparisons will remain true when we reexamine these wars decades from now, but they need not share the same ending. Iraq today hangs by a thread. It is certainly possible that Afghanistan will be in similarly dire straits in 2016, but it need not be. The Obama administration can take positive steps to support the Afghan government and, more importantly, the Afghan people, during the challenges ahead. A political strategy is long overdue.