Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Afghanistan harder than Iraq?
Afghanistan is going to be a tougher nut to crack than Iraq, some 62 percent of U.S. voters said in a recent Rasmussen poll.
Military generals and experts have said much the same thing.
General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East and Central Asia, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week that “achieving progress in Afghanistan will be hard and progress there likely will be slower in developing than was the progress in Iraq.” But he added, “As with Iraq, in Afghanistan hard is not hopeless.”
Hard but not hopeless. But can a population-centric counter insurgency campaign work as it did during the Iraq surge? Nir Rosen, writing in the Boston Review, lays bare the differences between the two wars.
Iraq was in the middle of an exhausting sectarian conflict which changed the nature of violence there from an anti-occupation struggle to a civil war when the surge started in 2007. The Sunnis were willing to cooperate with the Americans because the Sunnis knew they had been defeated by the time the “Sunni Awakening” began in Anbar Province in September 2006; the victorious Shias were divided, and militias degenerated into gangsterism.
“In comparison with al Qaeda in Iraq and Shia gangs, the Americans looked good. They could step into the void without escalating the conflict, even as casualties rose temporarily,” Rosen writes. And finally with more than two-thirds of Iraq’s population in cities, the U.S. efforts could focus on large urban centers, especially Baghdad, the epicenter of the civil war.
In Afghanistan, for all the mounting violence, there is no comparable exhaustion of the population, Rosen writes. It has not fallen into a civil war, even though tensions may be increasing between the Pashtuns and Tajiks. And so the United States cannot be its saviour.
The Taliban also appear to target only those Afghan civilians who collaborate with the Americans or the government in Kabul and those who violate their extremely harsh interpretation of Islam. You don’t have a situation like Iraq where predatory militias were targeting innocent civilians. In fact civilians in Afghanistan are as likely to be targeted by their own government as by paramilitary groups, Rosen says.
Finally two-thirds of Afghanistan’s population lives in hard-to-reach rural areas and so you can’t really build walls around their homes in a way that was possible if they lived in cities.
Even the whole idea of putting in more forces, such as police on the ground is drawing criticism. Everyone recognises that thing holding back effective policing is corruption, so how does expanding the force help matters?
“If I take drug dealers and gangbangers from the streets of D.C. to an eight-week program and then put them back in the same environment, can we expect it to change their activities,” Rosen quotes a counter-insurgency expert in Afghanistan as saying.
“If the corrupt force is the problem, why put twice as many police out there?”