As President Obama pooh-poohed as old news the many WikiLeaks documents showing the sad state of the conflict in Afghanistan, the chief executive also began an entire month of crowing about keeping his campaign promise to “bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end.” But in both wars, the president’s strategies are flawed and need to be replaced with new ones.
In Iraq, few serious analysts are gullible enough to believe that all U.S. forces will be withdrawn from the country as scheduled by the end of 2011. Most believe that the U.S. government will renegotiate the status of forces agreement with any new Iraqi government – making the heroic assumption that there is a new Iraqi government by next year – to leave some forces permanently in that country. That move would be ill advised, because, although the American media and public seem to believe that Iraq is on the road to becoming a stable democracy, it is very likely that larger-scale violence will resume as U.S. forces are reduced. Recent bombings and violence lead to serious questions about whether Iraqi security forces will be able to handle the already rising ethno-sectarian violence without a substantial American military presence. The various ethno-sectarian militias have never been disarmed and have been likely laying low until the U.S. drawdown is further along, much as the Taliban did in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2005.
The danger is that any remaining U.S. military presence in Iraq signals U.S. responsibility for future re-escalation, should renewal of ethno-sectarian strife ensue. Thus, the United States should completely withdraw from Iraq sooner than the end of 2011 and certainly shouldn’t try to renegotiate the agreement to keep forces there longer. A small U.S. force is likely to be vulnerable to attacks if violence again arises in Iraq.
In Afghanistan, the American media and public have been led to believe that the United States needs to win to stabilize the country. In reality, the U.S. government feels it needs to stabilize Afghanistan to maintain a forward base to attack into Pakistan to kill al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban, the latter of which is trying to destabilize and take over a nuclear-armed Pakistani government. But this policy runs into a couple of problems. The first is that the U.S. government fails to acknowledge that the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is the major cause of the rise of the Pakistani Taliban – just as it was the primary cause of the resurgence of the Afghan Taliban in 2006 after U.S. forces moved from Kabul into the Afghan countryside. The second is that the interests of the U.S. and Pakistani governments are at cross purposes. The United States needs to realign its interests with those of the Pakistani government so that Pakistan will be more amenable to U.S. attempts to neutralize al-Qaeda on its soil.
Although the United States has been pumping billions of aid into Pakistan, portions of the Pakistani government have been assisting the U.S. adversary – the Afghan Taliban. The reason for this unbelievable situation is that Pakistan realizes that the United States will eventually leave Afghanistan and is supporting the Afghan Taliban to combat the influence of its arch-rival, India, in Afghanistan. Pakistan is understandably obsessed with the threat of being sandwiched between the more powerful India and an Afghanistan dominated by Indian influence.
To realign U.S. and Pakistani interests, the United States needs to adopt the counterintuitive policy of withdrawing its forces completely from Afghanistan and allowing the Taliban to have some role in Afghan governance – this will happen anyway when the U.S. eventually loses the Afghan War – in exchange for an Afghan Taliban pledge not to again harbor al-Qaeda.
This proactive U.S. policy would no longer put Pakistani and U.S. interests at odds. Ending the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, and the perception that the Pakistani government is a U.S. lackey in that enterprise, would likely take the fire out of the Taliban insurgency on both sides of the border (remember, the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan is a primary cause of the instability in Pakistan). Furthermore, the Pakistani government has an interest in combating the Pakistani Taliban, to the extent that it would be necessary. Also, that government might then be more cooperative in combating the Pakistani Taliban’s guests – al-Qaeda. If the U.S. needed drone bases to continue to attack al-Qaeda in Pakistan, they might be transferred discretely to nearby Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan.
In short, it is time to end the nation-building in Afghanistan, because that occupation has been fueling Islamic radicalism and instability in the more important Pakistan. And it is time to fulfill the promise of completely withdrawing from Iraq as quickly as possible to avoid entangling the remaining troops in the likely renewal and escalation of ethno-sectarian violence.