Parallel Lines

There will be debate for years as to what the lessons of the Iraq war are. That’s good, and appropriate. What’s dangerous is to presume that whatever worked or didn’t work in Iraq will work or not work in Afghanistan. This is probably more of an unconscious presumption right now than anything else — you don’t see too many arguments of the form "This worked in Iraq, so it will probably work in Afghanistan" — but there are some discomforting similarities, if not entirely parallel ones.

There are some lessons from Iraq that seem like good-enough general principles for Afghanistan. One is that protecting the population — that is, providing for its security from both insurgent aggression and counterinsurgent collateral damage; providing for its material needs, including food, health care and economic opportunity; and providing an outlet for its political grievances and concerns, along with mechanisms to ensure and deliver justice — is essential for denying insurgent groups the civilian feeder pool they require to sustain themselves. Another is that all unhappy local circumstances are unhappy in their own way. The more deeply involved a counterinsurgent is in understanding her particular area of operations — what the locals’ concerns are; how the insurgents operate; what tools are available to address the legitimate concerns of the populace — the more successful she’ll be. That rule should prevent someone from thinking, "Well, it worked in that other case, several thousand miles away," but people have an understandable tendency to look to experience as a guide. Insurgencies are maddening cases where experience can be deceptive rather than helpful.

Bing West, whose recent book about counterinsurgency in Iraq has been widely praised, gave a talk earlier this month that used the case of the Anbar Awakening to make this point very well:

My third point is that the 2007 surge strategy in Iraq has gained mythic status that endangers clear thinking about Afghanistan. In Iraq, the Sunni tribes came over to the American side – to the strongest tribe – starting in late 2006 in Anbar. That change in attitude, called the “Awakening”, provided the bedrock upon which General Petraeus anchored his winning strategy. Had the Sunnis remained as uncooperative in 2007 as they had been in 2004, the situation would have been dire. Shortly before al Qaeda killed him, I asked Sheik Abu Risha Sattar, who led the Awakening, why the tribes hadn’t awakened earlier and saved bloodshed on both sides. “You Americans couldn’t convince us,” he replied. “We Sunnis had to convince ourselves.”

Sattar’s words are a warning about predicting when and why the tide of insurgent battle begins to ebb. Yes, sending 17,000 more American soldiers and marines to Afghanistan is necessary. But we don’t know what dynamic, if any, will cause the Pashtun sub-tribes on the Afghan side of the border to band together decisively against the Taliban gangs of Pashtuns attacking from Pakistan. We know the example set by staunch American soldiers makes a huge difference. Americans can provide temporary glue, but eventually the Afghanis must bind together their own tribal dynamics.

I’ve had my disagreements with West, but this is a very timely point. If Iraq can’t be avoided as a case study for Afghanistan, it’s necessary to look at why something worked in Iraq and then ask if similar circumstances exist in Afghanistan. But could it be more prudent to overcorrect, and to look to Iraq as minimally as possible?

Crossposted to The Streak.

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Spencer Ackerman

Spencer Ackerman

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