Losing Iraq and Afghanistan
Editor’s Note: The Bush administration has succeeded in getting the U.S. press corps and much of the public to focus on minor security improvements in Iraq and on the need for more allied troops in Afghanistan, while missing the bigger picture.
In this guest essay, the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland steps back and looks at the troubling wide-angle reality:
America is an amazing place—one of the wealthiest and freest nations on earth. Yet because Europe has so many more cultures and languages in one contained area, Americans, compared to their European brethren, seem like country bumpkins in their knowledge and understanding of what is happening in the world.
Unfortunately, this tin ear for global affairs sometimes afflicts U.S. leaders and media, too.
The obliviousness of the American people, politicians, and press is especially acute when it comes to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In Iraq, the media, always concerned that they might be branded as “liberal” or “unpatriotic,” portray dramatic improvements in Iraq because of the U.S. troop surge orchestrated by the heroic Gen. David Petraeus.
In fact, this portrayal has been so rosy—and so accepted hook, line, and sinker by the American people—that the Republicans will attempt to use progress in Iraq against the Democrats in the 2008 election!
In Afghanistan, the press coverage has been more accurate concerning the worrisome resurgence of the Taliban, but the media and the Democrats seem to think that the United States could still win if more troops—U.S. or NATO—are inserted, or if the U.S. were to get its meek allies to put more of their existing forces into battle against enemy fighters.
If the American public is deluded over the surge in Iraq, it is simply ignorant of what is going on in Afghanistan.
At the risk of being a “nattering nabob of negativity,” I would argue that the United States is still losing—and ultimately will be defeated—in both of these brushfire guerrilla wars.
Others are pointing in the same direction. In an important new book, Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq, William R. Polk, who has experienced insurgencies in the field, concludes from history that in the mid- to long-term—absent genocide by counterinsurgency forces—insurgents almost always prevail.
Even after spending $650 billion, more than 4,000 U.S. and allied lives, and tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi lives on these two wars, many U.S. politicians and most of the media and American public still prefer to avoid the stark reality that it has all been in vain—that is, that the United States is likely to lose both of these never-ending wars.
In Iraq, the violence has declined from peak levels, but actually started dropping even before the U.S. troop surge, primarily because severe ethnic cleansing had separated the warring Sunnis and Shi’a into homogenous ghettos, and because the United States had begun to pay off the Sunni guerrillas to police their local areas and fight the excessively bloodthirsty (and therefore incompetent) al Qaeda in Iraq.
More important, evidence exists that the militias in Iraq, like all good guerrilla forces, have patience and are merely waiting until the United States leaves.
Even with the surge, violence—although reduced—is still high, and no national reconciliation among the mutually suspicious groups has been achieved.
And it’s likely that none will be.
Decades of wars, including the U.S. invasion and occupation, and grinding international economic sanctions have further widened the deep social fissures in what was already one of the most fractious countries in the Middle East.
Had the obtuse Bush administration bothered to consult Arabist scholars before launching its ill-fated invasion and occupation, it would have learned that the faction-ridden Iraq, an artificial country dreamed up by the British after World War I, was the least likely of practically any nation in the Middle East to accept a liberal, federated democracy.
The level of incomes and social cooperation are too low for a liberal democracy to be sustained.
Even if the Iraqi government manages to pass all of the benchmark laws that the Bush administration wants (unlikely, since the president’s council just vetoed a law to hold local elections), the underlying social fragmentation will render such laws mere paper exercises, because no one will honor them.
The U.S. troop surge is merely a finger in the dike, temporarily holding back these titanic social forces from clashing in full-blown civil war.
Afghanistan, like Iraq, is naturally a decentralized tribal land. Continued U.S. and allied occupation is merely fueling a resurgence of the Taliban there and radical Islamic elements in Pakistan, a country with nuclear weapons.
Coercive U.S. and Afghan government anti-drug efforts are further exacerbating the Taliban’s rise, as poppy growers pay the Taliban for protection. Really, President Hamid Karzai’s role is only mayor of Kabul; warlords control the rest of the country.
The media, the American public, and even the Democrats think Afghanistan is a “must win” in the war on terror. Yet Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri, the leaders of al Qaeda, are probably in Pakistan—not Afghanistan.
To have the best chance to capture or kill these terrorist kingpins, perhaps, for once, the U.S. government should concentrate its efforts and vast resources where they are likely to be.
To achieve such focus on the perpetrators of 9/11, the next president of the United States could actually take advantage of the American people’s apathy toward foreign affairs, cut U.S. losses, and withdraw U.S. forces immediately from both Afghanistan and Iraq—two quagmires that are creating new radical Islamic terrorists in reaction to the occupation of Muslim lands by non-Muslims.
Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.
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