Both candidates in the US presidential election have bought the questionable argument that the war in Afghanistan needs to be salvaged for the "war on terror" to succeed. On top of that, to accomplish this rescue, they both have called for an Iraq-like surge of US troops into Afghanistan beyond the 8,000 more that President Bush is planning to inject into the country next year. McCain then goes even farther and says, "Senator Obama calls for more troops, but what he doesn’t understand, it’s got to be a new strategy, the same strategy that he condemned in Iraq, that’s going to have to be employed in Afghanistan."
Of course, Obama has never condemned the US strategy in Iraq, but has merely correctly stated that the surge was only one of many factors that lowered the violence there. In fact, during 2005, the US had as many troops in Iraq as it did during the 2007/2008 surge and violence increased. So even Obama might be giving too much credit to the higher US troop levels.
The reality is that the violence was mainly reduced in Iraq by the separation of warring ethno-sectarian groups due to prior ethnic cleansing and the US negotiating with and paying off its enemies not to fight. If this latter, somewhat embarrassing, strategy is what McCain has in mind for Afghanistan, it may not be as effective there. In Iraq, the US paid off secular Sunni guerrillas, who were fighting mainly because the US occupier had disbanded the Iraq military and threw them out of jobs. In Afghanistan, the Taliban and their Islamist fellow travelers are religious zealots who will not be so easily bribed. After all, in Iraq, the US did not attempt to co-opt the similarly zealous al-Qaeda in Iraq using bribery.
Afghanistan is also a harder nut to crack than Iraq for other reasons. To succeed, guerrillas need a sanctuary and outside material and financial support. Although the Iranians were providing some support to the Shi’a militias in Iraq, the US pressured Sunni neighbors of Iraq to cut off the provision of support and sanctuary for Iraq’s Sunni insurgents for the most part the United States’ main adversary. In Afghanistan, the now well-equipped Taliban is likely being supported by the Pakistani intelligence service (ISI), a longtime ally of the group despite billions in US assistance slathered on the Pakistani government. Furthermore, the untamed Pakistani tribal areas provide a sanctuary for the Taliban so that fighters from the group can cross into Afghanistan, attack, and then retreat to the sanctuary. US air strikes and occasional incursions on the ground into Pakistan to target these Taliban sanctuaries have been limited because of their unpopularity with the Pakistani population, which puts pressure on the Pakistani government to protest to the US loudly.
The Taliban and other Islamist fighters also have better sanctuaries within Afghanistan than within Iraq. Afghanistan’s rough terrain has sheltered many guerrilla movements over the years. In contrast, Iraq is fairly flat, although the guerrillas do get some cover by blending into urban areas.
Finally, the failed US war on drugs back home does not undermine the war effort in Iraq the way it does in Afghanistan. The poppies for 90 percent of the world’s heroin come from Afghanistan, and the US government feels, for domestic consumption, that it needs to do something about it. Unfortunately, Afghan farmers can make nowhere near the money off substitute crops the US offers them to get them to give up poppy cultivation. Even worse, drug eradication programs have driven these farmers into the hands of the Taliban.
The US effort in Afghanistan has experienced mission creep from getting Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to nation-building to drug interdiction. Yet bin Laden was never in Iraq and is probably no longer in Afghanistan. He is likely to be in Pakistan. So why is the US engaged in futile and counterproductive nation-building operations in Iraq and Afghanistan? The Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan and Pakistan precisely because Muslim populations hate non-Muslim occupation of Muslims lands.
Paying off the Taliban not to fight probably won’t work, and the Afghan war likely cannot be salvaged. The US should withdraw its forces from Afghanistan and concentrate on pressuring the Pakistani government into finding and turning over bin Laden.