Learning from Iraq – by Jamie Weinstein

The success of the Iraqi troop surge suggests a way forward in Afghanistan.


As Barack Obama deliberates over whether to grant General Stanley McChrystal’s request for 40,000 more troops in Afghanistan, one of the president’s greatest concerns is reportedly the unreliability and questionable legitimacy of the current Afghan government.

While this is hardly a trivial concern, it should be remembered that this same concern weighed heavily on those contemplating what turned out to be the hugely successful Iraq “surge” ordered by President George W. Bush in January 2007. Indeed, the same arguments now made against the Afghanistan surge – especially the dubious legitimacy and cooperation of the central government – were also made in the case of Iraq.

At the time, Charles Krauthammer best articulated the concern in a Washington Post column opposing the surge in Iraq. “If we were allied with an Iraqi government that, however weak, was truly national — cross-confessional and dedicated to fighting a two-front war against Baathist insurgents and Shiite militias — a surge of American troops, together with a change of counterinsurgency strategy, would have a good chance of succeeding,” Krauthammer wrote in January 2007. “Unfortunately, the Iraqi political process has given us Nouri al-Maliki and his Shiite coalition.”

Calling Maliki’s government “hopelessly sectarian,” Krauthammer concluded, “If it were my choice, I would not ‘surge’ American troops in defense of such a government. I would not trust it to deliver on its promises.” And despite his confidence in General David Petraeus, Krauthammer lamented that he was “afraid the effort will fail…because the Maliki government will undermine it.”

Krauthammer’s concerns were eminently reasonable. Indeed, they were shared by others, including many in the military establishment. But it proved a rare instance in which Krauthammer was wrong. The Iraq surge worked. While it remains to be seen whether Iraq ultimately will turn out to be a stable country, President Bush’s risky decision to increase America’s troop strength helped defeat al-Qaeda in Iraq, undeniably reversed a losing war, and gave the United States the opportunity for success.

In many ways, the earlier debate on the Iraqi surge is now being replayed. Last month, Afghanistan held national elections that were widely viewed as corrupt. After the United States persuaded Afghan President Hamid Karzai to participate in a run-off election against his leading challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, Abdullah withdrew, citing concern that the forthcoming elections would be equally corrupt.

As a result of the disputed election outcome, critics have warned that, without a reliable ally in the Afghan government, America’s mission in the country is doomed to failure. Therefore, the argument goes, it is best for the United States to scale back its military footprint rather than increase it. As conservative columnist George Will wrote last week, “If (Obama) is looking for a strategy that depends on legitimacy in Kabul, he is looking for a unicorn.”

The concern over the reliability of the Afghan government is not lost on General McChrystal. In his August report to the president, McChrystal expressed acute awareness of the failures of the Afghan government. Nonetheless, he concluded that America could still work with it and that success was possible in Afghanistan—but only if the mission was afforded the necessary resources, including troops.

The stakes are high. If America were to abandon or fail in the Afghan mission, a resurgent Taliban could very well retake the country with the only difference being that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda are now reportedly more closely allied than ever before.

With a safe haven in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda would be free to regroup and train. The result would be an increased terror threat to America. While some opponents of the Afghan surge try to minimize the importance of Afghanistan to al-Qaeda, terrorism expert Peter Bergen correctly noted in a recent article in the New Republic that “nearly every major jihadist plot against Western targets in the last two decades somehow leads back to Afghanistan or Pakistan.”

Looming in the background is also the fear that failure in Afghanistan would create further instability in Pakistan. If Pakistan were to fall to Islamists, there is the frightening prospect of jihadists finally getting hold of a nuclear arsenal. “If we are good here (Afghanistan), it will have a good effect on Pakistan,” McChrystal told The New York Times, explaining how success in Afghanistan is also important to fostering stability in Pakistan. “But if we fail here, Pakistan will not be able to solve their problems—it would be like burning leaves on a windy day next door.”

The two wars are not exact parallels, but the lessons learned in Iraq can certainly be applied to Afghanistan. One of those lessons is that, despite concerns over the Iraqi government’s ability to do its job to complement the U.S. military’s surge of troops and change in strategy, the ultimate result was successful in reversing a losing situation (at least so far).

If General McChrystal believes that he can achieve a similar result with the current Afghan governmental situation, President Obama ought to trust him. After all, it was Obama who appointed General McChrystal in May, and it was Obama who set the mission General McChrystal is now asking for more troops to complete. It would be the height of irresponsibility if the president now denied the general the resources to carry out the job he hired him to do.

Jamie Weinstein is a syndicated columnist with The North Star National. He can be reached through his blog, www.JamieWeinstein.com