Why an Iraq-style surge won't work in Afghanistan.

Why an Iraq-style surge won't work in Afghanistan.

Why an Iraq-style surge won't work in Afghanistan.

Military analysis.
Sept. 19 2008 11:30 AM

Afghanistan Isn't Like Iraq

Why a "surge" won't work there.

A NATO soldier trains an Afghani police officer. Click image to expand.
A checkpoint in Afghanistan

Republican presidential candidate John McCain said in a speech last July, "It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan."

We will soon find out if this is true.


Gen. David Petraeus, the architect of the surge, is about to become chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees American military forces in all South Asia and the Persian Gulf. If McCain's comment is valid, Petraeus will simply do in Afghanistan what he did in Iraq, and victory will be ours. QED.

The problem is, the conditions that made the surge succeed in Iraq to a limited degree (more on that caveat later) are very different from those in Afghanistan—so much so that the tactics employed in the one country have little relevance to the other.

It is indisputable that security in Iraq has improved. Casualties, insurgent attacks, and roadside bombings have greatly diminished. However, the surge is not the only—and probably not the main—cause of these trends.

The biggest cause was the "Sunni Awakening," in which Sunni tribes reached out to form alliances with U.S. forces—at the tribal leaders' initiative, before the surge began—in order to beat back the Islamist jihadists of al-Qaida in Iraq, whom they had come to hate more than they hated the American occupiers. Petraeus promoted this development by paying other Sunni militiamen who joined their ranks. (He had pacified Mosul in just this way in the early days of the occupation, until the money ran out and the Bush administration didn't give him more, at which point Mosul went up in flames.)

To the extent that the surge played a role, it wasn't so much the surge itself—the infusion of 25,000 extra U.S. combat troops—but rather what Petraeus ordered those troops to do. Rather than stationing them on remote superbases, as his predecessor had done, he put them in the neighborhoods to mix with the Iraqi people, earn their trust, gather intelligence, and try to keep them secure. In Baghdad especially, they also built massive walls throughout the city, physically separating the warring ethnic factions.

But the situation in Iraq bears little resemblance to that of Afghanistan. Barnett Rubin, a professor at New York University and author of several books about the country, spells out some of the differences:

Iraq's insurgency is based in Iraq; Afghanistan's Taliban insurgents are based mainly across the border in Pakistan. Iraq is urban, educated, and has great wealth, at least potentially, in its oil supplies; Afghanistan is rural, largely illiterate, and ranks as one of the world's five poorest countries. Iraq has some history as a cohesive nation (albeit as the result of a minority ruling sect oppressing the majority); Afghanistan never has and, given its geography, perhaps never will.

Moreover, the Taliban's insurgency is ideological, not ethno-sectarian (except incidentally). Therefore, while some warlords and tribes have allied themselves with the Taliban for opportunistic or nationalistic reasons, and therefore might be peeled away and co-opted, the conditions are not ripe for some sort of Taliban or Pashtun "Awakening." Nor is there any place where walls might isolate the insurgents.

Is the situation in Afghanistan hopeless, then? Not entirely. But any realistic hopes hinge on understanding something crucial about the surge in Iraq—it has not yet "succeeded," in any meaningful sense of the word.

Petraeus understands this. At his farewell ceremony as commander of multinational forces in Iraq, he said, "I don't like to use words like victory or defeat," and this remark did not stem from modesty. As anyone who's read Clausewitz knows, war is fought for political aims—it is not won until those aims are achieved—and this war's aims are not yet within sight: a stable, self-sustaining, democratic Iraq whose government is an ally in the war on terror.

To the contrary, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government is in bed with Iran (the real winner of this war so far); it is not remotely ready to manage internal tensions or defend its borders; Kurdish impulses toward secession and expansion threaten renewed sectarian conflict with the Sunni Arabs; and, by resisting pressure to bring the "Sons of Iraq"—the Sunni militias that have been flipped to our side—into the national army, Maliki jeopardizes the modicum of political progress that has been accomplished.