American Mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq





Deepak Tripathi, a former BBC Afghanistan correspondent, has taken a close interest in the United States, great power relations and South and West Asia for more than 30 years. His latest book is Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan, just published by Potomac Books, Incorporated.

A little more than a year after Barack Obama succeeded George W Bush as president, United States military hardware and troops are transferring to the Afghan theater in yet another attempt to control the insurgency.  Despite the ‘surge’ that General Stanley McChrystal asked for and President Obama approved after weeks of reflection, militants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border continue to defy American power.  High-profile military operations against the Taliban in Helmand, and more recently in Kandahar, illustrate both abilities and limitations of a superpower.  This is not new.  The Soviet occupation forces went through a similar experience during their occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.  Like the Soviets, the Americans are increasingly finding that it is possible to wrest control of specific areas, but only as long as their troops are in occupation of those areas.  As they move on for other operations, the insurgents make a comeback.

There are similarities between the recent American surge approved by President Obama and the increase in the Soviet occupation forces in Afghanistan after Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the USSR in 1985.  Early on, Gorbachev had decided to bring his troops home following a costly war in Afghanistan.  But he also ordered reinforcements similar in size to the American surge now.  Ostensibly, it was to give the Soviet armed forces one last chance to win the Afghan war, but more realistically because the Soviet Union needed to reinforce before a planned withdrawal.  Troops being withdrawn have to partially disarm.  The heavy equipment to be transported cannot be operational at the same time.  Soldiers moving out carry light arms for self-defense, not heavy lethal weapons for attack.  At the same time, the surge of more mobile units is intended to warn the enemy of more trouble coming.

President Obama has already announced that American troops will begin to leave Afghanistan by the middle of 2011.  My recent visit to South Asia reinforced this impression.  Obama is smart enough to know history and its lessons.  He has disappointed many of his liberal supporters who had expected much more from him.  But there is not much doubt that he would like to withdraw from Afghanistan.  Re-election in 2012 would depend on it to a considerable degree, along with the economy.  The wreckage of military ventures abroad and economic collapse at home left by the preceding administration must be prominent on Obama’s mind.  What Obama will achieve is by no means certain.  But there are lessons to be learned from the past.

The presidency of George W. Bush was rooted in a manifesto we know as the Project for the New American Century.  The project was born in reaction to the Clinton presidency in the post-Cold War decade of the 1990s.  The alliance of neoconservatives and the Christian Right provided George W Bush with core support.  Above all, the Bush presidency will be remembered for America’s foreign military ventures in the shape of three wars:  the Afghan war, the Iraq war, and a third war, borderless and timeless – the “global war on terror.”

The events of 9/11 posed an unprecedented security challenge.  The most important questions in Washington at the time should have been:  Where to start and where to stop?  What should be the scale and proportion of America’s response?  However, such considerations were absent as the talk of a “long war” or “generational war” illustrated, certainly in the first term of President Bush.

The record of great powers fighting long or generational wars against insurgents is not good.  The United States learned this in Vietnam.  The Soviet Union did so in Afghanistan.  A long war suits insurgent forces deeply embedded in the locale and culture of the theater.  They enjoy considerable support in the battleground.  Denial of this reality is often fatal.  A United States president has numerous issues to deal with.  But the overwhelming weight of events of the last decade leads to the conclusion that the Bush presidency was all about war.  The foreign ventures he embarked on within months of inauguration eclipsed everything else during his presidency.  It is therefore appropriate to evaluate the Bush presidency’s legacy in terms of the “war on terrorism.”

The objective of the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was regime change.  There has been a long debate about the true objective of the March 2003 invasion of Iraq:  weapons of mass destruction or regime change.  Time and events seem to have settled that debate.  It was claimed that Saddam Hussein had chemical and biological weapons that could be activated within 45 minutes.  Such weapons were not found.  A lot more about the considerations and deliberations between Washington and London, and in each capital, has come to light.  We know more about the private communication between President Bush and the British Prime Minister Tony Blair in the run up to the Iraq invasion – communication that other significant figures who should have been made aware of did not know.  And we have learned from Tony Blair that even with knowledge of there being no weapons of mass destruction, he would have employed other arguments to remove Saddam Hussein.

Much has been said about mistakes being made in Afghanistan and, more specifically, Iraq.  The biggest error of judgment was that two very different countries were given the same treatment of military power.  In doing so, the interveners appeared to act with vengeance more than a planned strategy.  Otherwise, why would Afghanistan – an utterly failed state – be subjected to sustained destructive air power and left without a serious attempt at rebuilding for so long? And the primary intervener moved on to Iraq to dismantle a well-organized state structure, after the dictator had been overthrown.  By treating Afghanistan and Iraq in the same way, the interveners did the opposite of what was needed in each country.

To view al Qaeda and the various nationalist movements in the Arab world as one “enemy” in the “war on terror” was an historic miscalculation.  The determination under the Bush presidency to crush nationalism in the Muslim world exacted a high price from the West.  But countries in the region paid, and continue to pay, a price even greater.  Al Qaeda’s terrorist violence has been answered by the terror of American military power.  Differing agendas of regional powers became fused with America’s aims in the “war on terror.” The impact was huge across the region, producing anger, resentment and outright rebellion in the wider populace.

In a country without national infrastructure, or where infrastructure is destroyed, there will be certain consequences.  The essence of the state’s role is maintaining order.  It does so by means of coercion, taxation and distribution.  In a country such as Afghanistan, self, family, clan, tribe and ethnic group acquire much greater significance.  In a failed or weak state, other agencies – a village elder, tribal chief or warlord – replace the state.  They command popular following, because they make things happen.

In Iraq, two early decisions by the American administrator Paul Bremer after the 2003 invasion triggered a multi-layered conflict.  By Order Number 1 of May 16, Bremer dissolved the Ba’ath Party.  In an article in Le Monde diplomatique, the British academic Toby Dodge described the Iraqi population a month after the arrival of the U.S. forces as dominated by a Hobbesian nightmare.  Dodge estimated that between 20,000 and 120,000 senior and middle-ranking Iraqi officials lost their jobs in the civil service purge alone.  They would have constituted the very force capable of restoring order amid chaos and violence.  Dodge wrote that seventeen of Baghdad’s twenty-three ministries were completely gutted, stripped of all portable items like computers, furniture and fittings – all within three weeks.  There were not enough American troops to stop it.

Bremer’s Order Number 2 dismantled the most important state institutions and subordinates such as government ministries, Iraqi military and paramilitary organizations, the National Assembly, courts and emergency forces.  It was essential to be prepared with alternatives to take over the functions of these organizations in a country of 30 million people.  Bremer’s two edicts left a vacuum that was rapidly filled by new violent players.

I want to offer a brief explanation of the nature of the other conflict – the Afghan war – since the 1970s.  It also applies, to an extent, to Iraq.  Afghanistan has striking parallels with other conflicts in Palestine, Yemen and elsewhere.  These conflicts can be seen in four separate yet overlapping, often simultaneous stages.  This is how:

Stage 1:  internal conflict.  In Afghanistan, internal conflict is a fact of history.  For simplicity, let’s begin from the “decade of liberalism and modernization” in the 1960s.  The conflict escalated after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973 – and again after the 1978 coup by young Soviet-oriented military officers, who feared that President Daud was taking the country too close to the United States.  

Stage 2:  increase in great power involvement.  External intervention fuels the unrest, and upsets the balance of forces locally.  This, in turn, attracts more external forces, until they begin to dictate the scale and course of events.  But their unacceptability among local players, and active resistance by local groups, hinder the creation and functioning of institutions.

Stage 3:  state disintegration.  In Afghanistan, the death of the state was slow, taking more than two decades.  In Iraq, too, considering the effects of sanctions and isolation, we are talking about more than a decade.  After Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, the final blow came relatively quickly.

Stage 4:  foreign indifference and rise of extremism.  I have in mind the decade of the 1990s and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan.  The Soviet state had been defeated and had disintegrated.  For the United States, exhausted and occupied with the urgency to manage the wreckage of the Soviet Union, most importantly its nuclear arsenal, Afghanistan was simply not a priority.

There is a general lesson to be learned.  A prolonged war leads to fatigue and indifference among external interveners.  A culture of violence matures.  Expectations on all sides are altered and violence becomes a way of life.  Actors left behind acquire a habit of using coercion.  And citizens come to expect solutions to be found through violence.  That few intervening powers grasp this lesson is a tragedy.  

We have at present a mix of the McChrystal plan of military surge and counterinsurgency and President Obama’s wish to start drawing down the combat forces in mid-2011.  His wish is driven by the 2012 presidential election in America.  And it is dependent upon recruitment, training and ultimately guaranteed discipline of a 300,000-strong Afghan national force.

However, history shows that integrity in the Afghan armed forces is difficult to achieve.  Tribal realities among Pashtun officers and rank-and-file soldiers – and distrust for Pashtuns among non-Pashtuns – cannot be wished away.  It would require a generation to transform the culture of the armed forces and the country even if the United States and the allies had the will.  In the absence of that will, I have some fears.  They are:  

  1. As soon as President Obama begins to draw down the combat forces in mid-2011 (or soon before), altering the balance of power, dramatic shifts of loyalties will occur in the Afghan armed forces.  This has happened before and could happen again.
  2. The Karzai government cannot survive if the military disintegrates along tribal and ethnic lines.  The Afghan armed forces and police lack cohesion already.
  3. Afghanistan has weapons in abundance.  Guns poured into the country, with the best possible intention of equipping the military, would fall into the wrong hands.  And I am not even talking about increased activity by Pakistan’s ISI and other regional players.

All of these are ingredients of a state of nature again.

The answer is a long-term regional project, led but not dictated by the United States, involving Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China and India; and a deliberate policy of demilitarization, however difficult and painful.  Internally, a type of tribal democracy, certainly outside Kabul and the other main cities, is what is realistic to hope for.

But the current state of America’s relations with China, Iran and Russia do not favor such a prospect.  Tensions have grown with Pakistan and Turkey.  And I know there is uncertainty, if not outright unhappiness, over the Obama administration’s policies elsewhere in the region.  This makes cooperation much more difficult.  The current strategy in Afghanistan lays too much emphasis on military tactics.  And it does not appreciate nearly enough how objectionable, how provocative, foreign military presence is to Afghans.  The sentiment goes beyond the Taliban.

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