Warning to the US: Beware Treating Afghanistan like Iraq

It's a mistake to think that 'failed states' won't put up strong resistance

President Obama is likely to announce in the coming days that he
will withdraw all US combat troops from Iraq by August 2010. Many of
these soldiers will end up in Afghanistan where the Taliban is getting
stronger and the US-backed government weaker by the day. How much has
the US learnt from its debacle in Iraq?

Tne lesson not learnt in Washington is that it is a bad idea to
become involved in a war in any so-called "failed state". This
patronising term suggests that if a state has failed, foreign
intervention is justified and will face limited resistance. But the
greatest US foreign policy disasters over the last generation have all
been in places where organised government had largely collapsed.

was Lebanon in 1983, when 242 US marines were blown up in Beirut,
Somalia 10 years later, and Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The lesson, which applies to nowhere more than Afghanistan, is that
societies with weak state structures devise lethally effective ways of
defending themselves.

I remember an Iraqi neurosurgeon, who had
just successfully defended his hospital in Baghdad against looters with
a Kalashnikov in 2003, saying to me: "The Americans should remember
that even Saddam Hussein had difficulty ruling this country." Iraq was
never like an east European autocracy. Even under Saddam every Iraqi
owned a gun. Iraqis would not fight for Saddam's regime, but they would
fight for their own ethnic or sectarian community or their country. An
error made by the US was to imagine that just because Shia and Sunni
Arabs hated each other that Iraqi nationalism was not a potent force.

conviction that a victory has already been won is leading American
commentators to assume blandly that the US can leave behind 50,000
non-combat troops in Iraq without any Iraqi objection. This would also
be contrary to the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated with enormous
difficulty and after prolonged wrangling last year.

The greatest
source of error for the Americans in Iraq was not a policy mistake but
an abiding belief that they alone made the political weather. Anything
good or bad which happened was the result of American action. Thus if
the Sunni insurgency against American forces started to come to an end
in the second half of 2007 it must be because of the "surge", as the
30,000 extra US troops and more aggressive tactics on the ground were
known. The real reason for the fall in violence had more to do with the
Shia victory over the Sunni in an extraordinarily savage civil war, a
reaction against Al-Qa'ida, and the ceasefire called by the Mehdi Army
to which belonged most of the Shia death squads.

If the US
intervention in Iraq proved anything it was that the Americans never
had the strength to shape the political and military environment to
their own liking. Yet well-reviewed books on Iraq still appear in which
Iraqis have a walk-on role and when somebody pushes a button in
Washington something happens in Baghdad. These misconceptions are
important because the mythology about the supposed success of the
"surge" is being promoted as a recipe for victory in Afghanistan.

would not be the first time that false analogies between Iraq and
Afghanistan have misled Washington. I was in Afghanistan during the war
against the Taliban at the end of 2001 and the beginning of 2002 and
one of the most striking features of the conflict was the lack of
fighting. The warlords and their men, who had previously rallied to the
Taliban, simply went home because they did not want to be bombed by US
aircrafts and they were heavily bribed to do so. There was very little
combat. Yet when I went to Washington to work in a think-tank for a few
months later that year the Afghan war was being cited by the Bush
administration as proof of America's military omnipotence.

It is
difficult to believe that the Obama administration is going to make as
many crass errors as its predecessor. So amazed were the Iranians to
see President Bush destroy their two most detested enemies in
Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001 and 2003 that some theologians held that
such stupidity must be divinely inspired and heralded the return of the
Twelfth Imam and the Shia millennium.

The reinforced US military
presence in Afghanistan risks provoking a backlash in which religion
combines with nationalism to oppose foreign intervention. It is this
that has been the real strength of movements like Hezbollah in Lebanon,
Hamas in Gaza, the Mehdi Army in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan
which the US wants to eradicate.

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