From 2007 to 2009, a surge of 20,000 troops under the generalship of David Petraeus saved a mostly lost war in Iraq. Petraeus' counterinsurgency doctrine helped win over the population, as the surge in troops gave greater security to Iraq's government and military. Despite occasional violence, fewer Americans have been killed in Iraq in 2011 (53 in the most recent count) than in any year since the invasion -- a quiet that could end with the departure of all American troops soon.
By 2009, Afghanistan was spiraling out of control and seemed in need of a similar troop surge. President Obama reluctantly agreed to send 20,000 reinforcements. Two prominent veterans of the Iraq turnaround, Petraeus and Marine Gen. James Mattis, eventually took over command of the war and the surrounding theater to seek a repeat of what they had helped accomplish in Iraq.
Yet despite better security in some provinces, a general reduction in violence and a decline this year in American fatalities, public support for the war in Afghanistan is at an all-time low. The violent country still remains about eight times more deadly to American troops than is Iraq.
Why hasn't the surge worked as well as it did in Iraq? One reason is the lack of commensurate diplomatic support. In Iraq, Ambassador Ryan Crocker worked closely with Petraeus and the Iraqi government to integrate civilian and military strategy. That sort of cohesion -- until the recent dispatch of Crocker to Afghanistan -- was lacking in 2009 and 2010. Instead, endemic squabbling between American ambassadors, the Afghan government, the U.S. military and regional State Department diplomatic czars hampered unity of purpose.
Afghanistan, of course, is also not Iraq. We forgot that between 2002 and 2006, when the media strangely considered it the "good," necessary and quiet war to distinguish it from the far more violent and unpopular "bad" Iraq war. Yet this good war/bad war idea -- so popular in the 2008 presidential campaign -- was always a false construct.
Afghanistan poses far more challenges than Iraq. Instead of Iraq's billions of dollars in state oil revenue, impoverished Afghan gangs export opium. Iraqis are part of the larger Arab world, living in its most strategically important area. Afghans are far more isolated and less critical to the world economy.