The Good Counterinsurgency

Posted: Jan 19, 2007 10:42 AM

If a weak, sectarian-tinged government is struggling to maintain itself in the midst of an intensifying insurgency, Democrats are eager to help. So long as that government is in Kabul instead of Baghdad.

Democrats consider Afghanistan the good counterinsurgency, never mind that the Afghan War is almost a replica, albeit on a smaller scale, of the Iraq War. One can believe that the Iraq War is lost and the Afghan War is still winnable, and want to proceed on that basis. But some Democrats appear to think that, politically, they have to be in favor of at least one of America’s counterinsurgencies, and so they pick Afghanistan.

Hillary Clinton just returned from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan that was a transparent excuse to recalibrate her position on the Iraq War. She came out in favor of a cap of U.S. troops in Iraq, but for 2,300 more troops in Afghanistan because “commanders expressed their concern that there would not be enough U.S. troops to conduct all necessary counterinsurgency operations.” The troop surge in Iraq is meant to address exactly the same concern, since counterinsurgency operations there are just as necessary, indeed urgent.

Clinton says that in contrast to Iraq, in Afghanistan we are “fighting the enemy that brought us September 11.” That would have been a reason to oppose the Iraq War at its inception (Hillary voted for it), but can’t be a reason to oppose fighting it now since al Qaeda is there on the ground. Does Clinton believe that we should fight al Qaeda everywhere except inside the borders of Iraq, and doesn’t that constitute the kind of safe haven we are fighting to prevent in Afghanistan?

The costs of the Iraq War, of course, are much higher. Roughly ten times as many American troops have died in Iraq as in Afghanistan. But the stakes in Iraq are much higher, too. It is a more strategically central country, sitting atop perhaps the world’s second-largest oil reserves. In Iraq, we are fighting not only to beat back al Qaeda, but the radical regime in Iran, whose ambition is to be the nuclear-armed hegemon of the Middle East.

The Afghan government is marginally more competent than Iraq’s. If you want to run down the prospects of success in Afghanistan, however, there’s plenty of material. A recent piece in Foreign Affairs cited the “lack of electricity,” “rising crime,” “the corruption and incompetence of the police force,” a “booming” drug economy, and murderous thugs in the Ministry of Interior. Sound familiar?

Iraq’s government might be sectarian, but at least it represents the majority faction — the Shia who are 60 percent of the country. The Afghan government is dominated by Tajiks (27 percent) and Uzbeks (9 percent). Sectarian divisions play into the insurgency. Former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer writes in The American Interest that by backing a “minority-dominated government in Kabul,” we are repeating the approach that “brought the Pashtun-dominated Taliban to power in 1995 and 1996.”

If we must avoid intervening in civil wars, we never should have been in Afghanistan in the first place. Oddly, the left has tended throughout the years to favor intervening in civil wars in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and (now) Darfur. If we were to leave Iraq and it descended into a genocidal bloodletting, would the George Clooneys of the world favor a new intervention on humanitarian grounds? Or does the watch-phrase “never again” have an Arab exception?

None of this is to counsel despair in Afghanistan, but to point out that the arguments marshaled for quitting in Iraq can also be applied there. The two conflicts have been connected, with tactics like suicide bombings migrating from Iraq to Afghanistan. If we left Iraq, our enemies would be emboldened, more jihadis would flock to Afghanistan and conditions there would worsen.

If Iraq is deemed another Vietnam, Afghanistan will be ripe to be deemed another Iraq. How long until a “phased redeployment” begins there, too?