Juan Cole: Obama's surge: Has the president been misled by the Iraq analogy?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Cole is Professor of Modern Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan. His website is http://www.juancole.com.]

President Barack Obama’s just-announced plan for Afghanistan seems modeled less on Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam strategy than on George W. Bush’s Iraq exit strategy. Or, at least it is modeled on the Washington mythology that Iraq was turned from quagmire into a face-saving qualified success by sheer indomitable will and a last-minute troop “surge.” But Afghanistan is not very much like Iraq, and the Washington consensus about its supposed end-game success in Iraq is wrong in key respects. Are think tank fantasies about an Iraq "victory" now misleading Obama into a set of serious missteps in Afghanistan?

Obama explicitly referred to the Iraq withdrawal as a model for Afghanistan, saying, "Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops by the end of 2011." He was referring to the Status of Forces Agreement imposed on Bush by the Iraqi parliament in fall of 2008, which set a timetable for withdrawal. The SOFA has worked better than its critics expected, in part because the new Iraqi army is now capable of patrolling independently and is willing to stand and fight against popular militias, albeit with U.S. supplies and close air support.

Moreover, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gained control of his field officers, establishing forward operating bases that reported directly to him. He exaggerated his victory at Basra in spring of 2008 over the Mahdi army militia, and unfairly discounted the role of U.S. air power and troops in lending the operation crucial support. He and his American allies, moreover, seldom acknowledge the crucial mediating role of Iran in getting the Mahdi army to stand down. It is nevertheless true that the 275,000-strong Iraqi army can now face down most security challenges from militias. It cannot entirely stop terrorism and has not restored security to Sunni Arab cities such as Baquba and Mosul in the north, but overall attacks and civilian deaths have for the most part declined since the U.S. military ceased its active patrols. Iraq is an oil state, and is spending nearly $10 billion this year on the Ministries of Defense and the Interior (which oversees the police). Afghanistan’s entire gross domestic product is only about $12 billion a year on an exchange rate basis.

In contrast to his Iraqi counterpart, President Hamid Karzai is said by U.S. intelligence to control only about 30 percent of the country, while the Taliban control 10 to 15 percent. The rest is in the hands of warlords. Karzai is known as a prickly micro-manager of his own bureaucratic turf, but seems unable to see the big picture. He has not attempted anything nearly as ambitious as al-Maliki’s Basra campaign. The attempt of Karzai’s camp to steal the recent presidential election deeply hurt his legitimacy, as President Obama acknowledged in his speech. Meanwhile, Al-Maliki’s Islamic Mission (Da'wa) Party gained dramatically in popularity in last January’s provincial elections, suggesting that he has real popularity in the big Shiite urban centers. So the political situation in Iraq is much more promising than that in Afghanistan, despite the former’s tendency toward political gridlock and ethnic jockeying, which may delay the parliamentary elections originally scheduled for January.

A major plank of Obama’s Afghanistan platform is a troop escalation -- another 30,000 on top of the 22,000 he dispatched last winter. It inevitably calls to mind the Iraq escalation that then-Sen. Obama opposed. The Washington consensus is now that Bush’s "surge" or troop escalation defeated "al-Qaida" in Baghdad and in al-Anbar province, allowing the new Iraqi military to begin patrolling and ultimately to do so independently, and thus paving the way for a "responsible" U.S. withdrawal. While it is certainly true that the steps taken by Gen. David Petraeus in spring and summer 2007 contributed to a substantial reduction of violence in Iraq, the actions of the U.S. military were only one piece of the puzzle.

The simple fact of the matter is that in 2006 amd 2007 the Shiite militias and government troops decisively won the civil war in Baghdad. They ethnically cleansed the Sunni Arabs from the capital, creating a massive refugee problem in Jordan and Syria. Baghdad went from being a mixed city to being 85 to 90 percent Shiite, as a team at Columbia University recently charted. The killing thereafter was so much reduced because there were few mixed neighborhoods left. Even the willingness of Sunni Arabs to join pro-American Awakening Councils or Sons of Iraq militias that took on Sunni extremist groups derived in some important part from this fear of being ethnically cleansed...
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Donald Wolberg - 12/4/2009

I t has been said of geologists such as myself, that we have a "profound sense of the obvious." It is marvelous to see that the same seems to apply to historians such as Mr. Cole. with amazing insight, he has determined that Iraq and Afghanistan are different, that the central government of Iraq seems to have a "structure" to itself that can control events more or less throughout a fairly integrated country, and that not much of the above applies to Afghanistan. He also seems to agree that the military leaders of the U.S. are really good at what they do, and that they have well trained and very capable forces under their command and can accomplish a mission that is defiend and equipped with soldiers and support, although he is less than enthusiastic about those accomplishments. Unfortunately, Mr. Cole seems to be unable to make that conceptual leap and recognize thet Mr. Bush was determined to win in Iraq while Mr. Obama seems incapable of accomplishing much beyond indecision, and his a failure to grasp complex realities only delays required actions. The awful West Point speech indicates a very superficial understanding of history or military matters. None of this can build confidence in planned Afghanistan operations.

Afghanistan is not a "failed" state. It is a non-state. The sad lives of people there are mired in a bizarre anachronism of barter based tribalism divorced from the world. In a sense the tribal based society functions and meets individual and societal needs, although in the context of a primitive Islamic, poppy based fantasy of guns and money to buy guns, domination and suppression of women, distrust of education and all modernity. Afghanistan looks more like a bad "B" adventure movie with little worth to the world or the world's future. Mr. Obama's failure is a reluctance and lack of leadership courage to just leave it mostly alone but still continue to locate and kill the bad guys unless they agree to leave us alone, and get out of that miserable place. The certain deaths and wounding of more American and NATO kids is pointless.