America in Afghanistan vs. America in Iraq – The Difference is the Key

This week, the Afghanistan strategy of the Obama Administration was ripped apart. Stratfor wrote, “The conflict’s inherent contradictions are being laid increasingly bare”. Mathew Green of the London-based Financial Times wrote that the recent killings have “not only unmasked the ugly face of the campaign but has cracked every faultline wider – the divide between Afghans and the Nato force, the divisions between Afghans and their government, and the gulf that separates leaders in Kabul and Washington.”  

Yet, these articles simply describe the symptoms. Neither article discussed the reason for either the “inherent contradictions” or the “faultlines“. The temptation is still to look for superficial similarities in search for answers. We saw this with Bill O’Reilly in his conversation with Lieut. Colonel Ralph Peters  when he brought up what worked in Iraq. We can’t blame Mr. O’Reilly because the Obama Administration has based its strategy on the same fallacy. That is why President Obama asked General Petraeus to implement in Afghanistan the counter-insurgency strategy that he had used in Iraq. That strategy has failed and failed badly as this week’s events showed.

Iraq was a relative success for America because of fundamental, structural reasons:

  1. The result of American intervention in Iraq was deliverance of power to Iraq’s long suffering Shia majority and freedom from tyranny for Iraq’s minority ethnic group, the Kurds. The insurgency in Iraq was by elements among the Sunni minority who had ruled Iraq for decades. The insurgency was brutal in the extreme but ultimately winnable because the Iraqi majority was on America’ side. The new Iraqi National Army was drawn from the majority community and had the most basic of incentives to work with the American military – stabilize the rule of the majority and maintain peace.
  2. The geographical factor was also conclusively in America’s favor. The minority Sunni insurgents had no where else to run. Iraq was a single cohesive entity and all the Iraqi people lived within that cohesive entity. So it was possible for American counter-insurgency strategy to isolate, surround and destroy the virulent elements among the insurgents and bring the non-virulent into the fold.
  3. Iraq’s neighborhood was supportive of the core American goal of bringing stability Iraq. Both Iran & Saudi Arabia, mortal enemies of each other, wanted a stable Iraq.

Despite these powerful fundamental and structural advantages, stabilizing Iraq proved to be a very turbulent, expensive effort. But because the American strategy was morally and tactically correct, Iraq eventually became a relative success for America.

(US Army Ethnolinguistic map of Afghanistan – src wikipedia)
(Pashtun – light green, Hazara – dark green)
(Uzbeck – offwhite, Tajik – dar
k grey)

Now consider how different Afghanistan is from Iraq and how American strategy is playing out there:  

  1. In Afghanistan, America is essentially waging war against the majority community, the Pashtuns. When a foreign military wages war against the majority of a country, it becomes an occupier. There are no two ways about it. The American efforts are supported by the minority Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek communities.
    1. These different communities live in geographically different areas of Afghanistan, the Tajik, Hazara & Uzbeks in the North and North-West while the Pashtuns in the South & South-East along the Pakistani border (see map above). Not only are the Pashtuns ethnically different, they also speak a different language.
    2. The new “Afghan National Army” trained by America is virtually all minority. It has utterly failed in recruiting Pashtuns. So the “Afghan National” army is a minority army that neither belongs in the majority Pashtun areas nor speaks the Pashtun language. No wonder, this army has been of dubious value to the American military. And no amount of training or money can change this reality.
  2. America is also at a major geographical disadvantage. Afghanistan is not a single cohesive entity. The line of control with Pakistan partitions the Pashtun population into two halves, one living in Afghanistan and one living under Pakistani occupation. So the Pashtun Taleban can easily run across to Pashtun havens across the line of control when attacked and return when the American soldiers withdraw.
    1. This is eerily similar to Vietnam where the Vietcong could run to North Vietnam and return back into South Vietnam at will. The American trained South Vietnamese army had the same ethnicity, the same language and the same culture. But that did not work.
    2. In contrast, the American trained Afghan Army has a different ethnicity, a different language and a different culture. How on earth can it ever be successful in stabilizing the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan?
  3. Then you have the neighborhood. Every single neighbor of Afghanistan realizes that the American plan is doomed to utter failure. So they are engaged in planning for the aftermath rather than supporting America’s losing effort.
    1. The primary villain is Pakistan, the regime that America has called its “critical ally” for the past 10 years. A stable Afghanistan is Pakistan’s nightmare. Such an Afghanistan will favor cordial relations with India. So not only with Pakistan lose its
      strategic depth against India but it will face a two-front problem. In addition, the Pashtuns in a stable Afghanistan will have every incentive to get the Pakistani-occupied Pashtun territories back under Pashtun control. Not only will Pakistan lose a large strategic chunk of territory but other minorities like the Baloch will be tempted to break away from Panjabi-dominated Pakistan. This is why America’s “critical ally” has been working diligently to ensure that America fails conspicuously in Afghanistan.
    2. The other neighbors don’t want Afghanistan to again become a vassal of Pakistan. So Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are engaged in helping their own communities prepare for the post-American struggle. These neighbors are supported by Russia and India.

When Afghanistan is so utterly different from Iraq, how can any one assume that tactics that worked in Iraq would work in Afghanistan? But that has been the foundation of American doctrine in Afghanistan. The consequences of this enormous error are the “inherent contradictions” and “faultlines” quoted by Stratfor and Financial Times.

We have maintained from the beginning that the Afghan conflict is essentially a Pashtun conflict. Any doctrine, any plan that is not based on providing self-government or autonomy to the Pashtuns, any tactic that does not take into account Pashtun aspirations is doomed to failure.

The reality on the ground is getting worse. The minority communities that supported America’s involvement in the past are themselves getting angry. This, according to Stratfor, “marks an important inflection point”. This could isolate the American military further from all segments of Afghanistan and convert it into a purely foreign occupier. Therefore, as Steve Coll wrote in the New Yorker this week, “There is no reason to march ahead, blinkered and fatalistic, burdened by a plan that may already have failed.”

So what is Plan B?  The Plan B suggested by Ambassador Blackwill in January 2011 would let the US Military leave the southern Pashtun areas of Afghanistan and retire to the northern Tajik-Hazara-Uzbeck areas, a sort of a de facto partition of Afghanistan. According to Lt. Colonel Peters, America should take President Karzai at his recent word and withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan leaving behind special forces and drones. These special forces should then concentrate on killing the terrorists that are hiding inside Pakistan.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has too much invested in its current strategy and this is an election year. So nothing will change until 2013. It could be a completely different neighborhood by then.

So why shouldn’t America just leave Afghanistan? The most eloquent answer came from Steve Coll in his  New Yorker article:

  • “When NATO arrived in Afghanistan in 2001, it recognized that its governments had, during the dark nineteen-nineties, ignored the connections between Afghan suffering and international security. An exit of NATO combat forces is now a certainty. Perhaps it is already likely that NATO will leave behind another terrible civil war or a second era of widespread, coercive Taliban rule. The security of Afghans and Americans will remain linked, come what may.” (emphasis ours)

In other words, we have no plan to succeed but we cannot leave. A textbook definition of a Quagmire!

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