Commentary

Don’t ‘Pull an Iraq’ in Afghanistan

This week at a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romainia, American officials asked Europeans to send more troops to the war in Afghanistan. Leaders in both the Democratic and Republican Parties agree that higher troop levels and a deeper commitment to state-building are the path to victory in Afghanistan. But both sides are wrong, and Iraq shows why.

When it comes to military occupations, Iraq reveals that bigger isn’t always better. The heavy United States troop presence at the start of the occupation helped spark the insurgency. New tactics, militia cease-fires, and resettlement moved Iraqis out of harm’s way and reduced violence in Iraq in recent months. The surge in troop numbers mattered less than these factors.

The truth is, neither Americans nor Afghans can create an Afghanistan that fulfills US hopes. ”

But what US involvement in Iraq principally demonstrates is the limitation of American military power in reordering foreign societies. US troops can check violence in areas they occupy, but cannot repair the tensions that produce such violence. Those tensions stem from political problems that only Iraqis can solve, as the current unrest in the Shiite south indicates. If Iraq teaches Americans that flooding troops into other states racked by civil war and that undertaking massive state-building efforts is a good use of tax dollars, they are misguided.

Disappointingly, US foreign-policy makers have embraced this false lesson. The politicians and think tank experts likely to guide the next administration’s military policy seem to believe that if Americans only plan better, coordinate more, and master counter-insurgency doctrine, the country can succeed in future wars meant to build foreign governments. The public may have learned enough to change their opinion, but Washington’s hubris is essentially intact.

Consider the recent push to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan. John McCain agrees with the current administration that more European soldiers are needed, but seems chary of sending more Americans there given his commitment of troops to Iraq. His friends at the American Enterprise Institute ignore this problem and back another American surge. Meanwhile, the loudest backers of increasing troops in Afghanistan are Democrats.

The liberal Center for American Progress has long advocated shifting troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, a stance now echoed by several left-leaning think tanks. Last month, Hillary Rodham Clinton called for expanded American and NATO troop contributions, plus increased funds for reconstruction. Barack Obama recently said something similar with greater specificity.

The problem with this outbreak of surge enthusiasm is less the push for more troops itself than the associated idea that Afghanistan needs the treatment Iraq is getting. Democrats argue that Bush has neglected Afghanistan and that its stability and US security require a bigger, better state-building effort. This is backward.

One of the Bush administration’s rare achievements is the modesty of US presence and ambitions in Afghanistan.

Defending American interests in Afghanistan requires nothing more than ensuring the absence of a haven for international terrorists and making an example of those who provide one. Those two reasonable goals justified the war in Afghanistan, unlike the Iraq war.

If the latter goal should fail, US forces can target terrorist camps and supporters through raids and airstrikes guided by intelligence, even if Taliban militias gain power in some regions. Those missions do not require a huge force structure, or that Afghanistan become a modern nation, a democratic one, or even stable.

Instead of this realistic approach, the next president will probably move to expand a never-ending war meant to assert the control of a statelet in Kabul over an unruly territory. Afghanistan is full of arms and grievances. It lacks the basics of statehood: a road network, a working national energy grid, widespread patriotism, and tax collection. The notion that a 25 percent increase of Western forces and investment is enough to transform Afghanistan into a peaceful, centralized state shows idealism of stunning tenacity.

Only Afghans can properly build Afghanistan. When Americans attempt to do the job, we protect Afghans from the struggle that will ultimately make them stronger. The truth is, neither Americans nor Afghans can create an Afghanistan that fulfills US hopes. We should aim for one that meets US needs.

Benjamin H. Friedman is a research fellow in defense and homeland security studies at the Cato Institute and a PhD candidate in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.