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Iraq and Afghanistan: Similar, Yet Different
Austin J. Luckenbach
As indicated by Joseph Logan of Reuters, on the 18th day of December 2011, except for a skeletal crew left in the Green Zone, the last convoy of United States ground forces crossed the southern Iraq border into Kuwait, via the K-Crossing check point. (Logan 2011) Mission complete, we conquered our adversaries with complete success; at least that’s what decision makers on behalf of the United States thought at the time. Defining success coincides with a desired end state. Although no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) were found, the United States accomplished their missions, to meet their desired end state, which was to liberate Iraq from tyranny and put in power a democratically elected President. At the time of our complete withdraw; with complete certainty it was felt that Coalition efforts in Iraq were a complete success. That perception quickly changed in early January 2014, when al-Qaeda affiliated groups took over Fallujah, Iraq, the city where many great American servicemen gave the ultimate sacrifice, in order to overtake during pivotal operations during the Iraq War.
Fallujah falling is a very significant event and brought an entirely new perspective to the discussion involving the United States exit strategy from Afghanistan. As displeasure of Operation Enduring Freedom continues to rise, political figures are under pressure to effectively pull the United States out of Afghanistan, ending the thirteen year conflict. The lack of an exit strategy is obvious and policy makers have been throwing around terms such as, “leave Afghanistan like Iraq”, and Fallujah validates that mirroring our Iraq strategy isn’t in the realm of possibilities as strategy for exiting Afghanistan is discussed. Can the operations in Iraq be understood and become lessons learned for decision makers drafting the courses of action for exiting Afghanistan? Renewed violence and insurgent takeovers aren’t the only validating points that the exit strategy in Afghanistan must be different; Afghanistan’s exit strategy must be unique and different from all others.
The current War on Terror has been coined our era’s Vietnam and over the last twelve years there has been no shortage of opinions on how similar or different Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) are. Whether those opinions are comparing or contrasting to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this review will focus on the one constant that comes either directly or indirectly from all those different theories and opinions. That one constant is: Afghanistan and Iraq reside in the same region of the world and insurgents who oppose and hate Western Powers roam maliciously in each country. However, each war will continue to be significantly different and polices that reflect American and Coalition operations in Afghanistan should not be executed based on the sole comparison of events in Iraq, such as the upcoming American exit strategy from Afghanistan. Although the literature attempts to present this theme without a political influence based on public perceptions and support, that’s constantly proved difficult, because our foreign policy is a core component of our political agendas, this paper will identify wrongful comparisons that have been made, how those comparisons have proved costly to operations, and the research in this paper will be conducted without political bias.
The study originated from a need to explain the misconception that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were that same, and could be fought under that notion. Many lives have been lost because of poor decision making, this case study is intended to validate what was stated above, that decisions for operations in Afghanistan cannot justified solely on the comparison to such operations in Iraq. The research methodology for the following case study requires gathering relevant data from an array of sources and databases in order to analyze the material and arrive at a more complete understanding of why the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are different. The following questions will be answered through this case study’s research: 1) Can the United States operations in Iraq become lessons learned for policy makers drafting the exit strategy for Afghanistan? 2) How are the insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq different? 3) Will the United States ever completely leave Iraq or Afghanistan?
September 11, 2001 had many different effects on people who were old enough to understand the magnitude of the event. The events that day, eventually led me to joining the military, as the desire to join the cause and fight terrorism, poured through my veins. I started my career by enlisting in the Air Force, as a strategic analyst, followed by my commission into the Army National Guard. Essentially, I’ve spent thirty percent of my life combating terrorism between the two services. I was old enough to remember the beginning, when George W. Bush declared war on Iraq, and as a member of the Intelligence Community, how we got to where we have is important. Equally important is how it “ends”, because it will give insight on the potential causes of renewed violence later down the road. Being a part of the Intelligence Community and still being left with many questions have been the contributing factors of why I chose this case to investigate.
A pragmatic approach will be used for this case study, incorporating both quantitative and qualitative methods, although the qualitative research method will be the primary method. Data will be collected from multiple resources and databases. As always, there will be bias surrounding all the research that involves politics and military decisions, and this case study will take arguments from both sides of each, to form a complete and accurate argument that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are different. Using information from both sides, will allow for unbiased results and effective discussions.
When critiquing events and decisions made during our operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, understanding the circumstances in which those decisions were made is important. If the decision is being made by a Ground Commander, or Platoon Leader, it is much harder to be critical of that decision when investigating the cause and effects of those particular operations. Often times, news media outlets unjustly blame these low level decision makers for decisions made. Without being on the ground when these leaders have to make decisions, often times with lives on the line, nobody can fully understand the circumstances that lead to the decisive decision that was made. Lower-level decisions are more often than not made under pressure, with little planning. The same cannot be said for those who decisions makers in charge of policy and large scale operations.
High-level decisions have time to be analyzed, and proposed courses of action are able to be war gamed. Also, the weight of these high-level decisions never rests on the shoulders of an individual. Groupthink, as defined by dictionary.com: the practice of approaching problems or issues as matters that are best dealt with by consensus of a group rather than by individuals acting independently, is used for every major decision faced by policy makers and high-level military decision makers. However, because there are representatives from both the military and political realms, decisions are often made or not made because of political interests. Poor decisions can also be made because of misinterpretations and comparisons, as we saw with decisions being made in Afghanistan because of results being seen in Iraq.
Policy and Operational decisions made in Afghanistan and early comparisons between the two conflicts were likely made because of the overwhelming successes the United States had while conducting operations in Iraq. Early comparisons were erroneous and likely a political maneuver in an attempt to maintain American support for our operations in the Middle East. There continues to be a forgetfulness that the very initial stages of the Iraq War was a conventional conflict, against the Iraqi Army, followed by the dragged out asymmetric conflict against former Iraqi military personnel and the world’s most dangerous insurgents who are aligned to many different al-Qaeda groups. (Riedel 2007) But why was there such an influx of an al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, when their footprint there had been virtually non-existent? The 9/11 Commission found no credible evidence of any operational connection between al-Qaeda and Iraq before the United States declaration of war. (Riedel 2007)
The answer is poor decision making by the United States. As described by Bruce Riedel, “But thanks largely to Washington’s eagerness to go into Iraq rather than concentrate on hunting down al-Qaeda’s leaders, the organization now has a solid base of operations in the badlands of Pakistan and an effective franchise in western Iraq.” (Riedel 2007) This is precisely were the controversial assessment by the Bush Administration that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and rushed to invade and/or intervene in Iraq. Also, there was clearly a lack of predictive analysis. When the first Tomahawk Missile struck Baghdad in 2003, the United States had already been involved in covert operations, aligned with the Northern Alliance, for nearly two years. (Williams 2010) Our priorities switched and the United States allowed al-Qaeda to develop a large cadre of operatives, which has reached throughout the Muslim world and beyond and it will likely take longer to seek out and effectively defeat al-Qaeda. Many believe that Western Powers can still defeat al-Qaeda, including Bruce Riedel, “by implementing a comprehensive strategy over several years, one focused on both attacking al-Qaeda’s leaders and ideas and altering the local conditions that allow them to thrive.” (Riedel 2007)
“Strategy depends for success, first and most, on a sound calculation and co-ordination of the end and the means.” (Hart 1991) This quote by B.H. Liddell Hart reinforces the notion that planners are just as much to blame as the decision makers. When planning for a conflict, planners and strategists, must identify an end state and obtainable goals for the proposed situation. Even though the intelligence justifying the United States’ declaration of war against Iraq proved to be inadequate, the planners proved to be quite accurate when they proposed an obtainable end state, and the means of getting to that end state. The abbreviated end state was to liberate Iraq from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein and his regime - contributing factors for the success of Coalition operations in Iraq will be discussed later in this study. However, planners and strategists covering Afghanistan have experienced quite different results, by continuing to fail miserably.
From the initial planning phases, through the most recent operations, there is not one reason to make any decision in Afghanistan, based on our experiences in Iraq. If there would have been some basic analysis and research conducted prior to the approval of our Afghanistan strategy, the results would have likely been different – in a favorable way. Initially, the state of each country should have been considered, because they were completely different. At the time of our invasion into Iraq, they were controlled by true dictator, but there were no instabilities. Afghanistan on the other hand, is infamous for being unstable and a country constantly at war. However, the political situation in each country is just the beginning of a long list of differences, which seem to have never been considered, or intentionally dismissed.
Since the political situation is just the beginning, that means there are second and third order effects that either worsen or improve as the wars progress, and infrastructure is at the forefront. The reason Iraq was stable, was because of the well-established infrastructure that was already developed. And, the reason for Afghanistan’s continued instability is the lack of infrastructure. Infrastructure allowed Saddam Hussein to effectively reach the Iraqi population and the lack of infrastructure makes it impossible for the Afghanistan government to effectively communicate with their population. As operations progressed in Afghanistan, Coalition strategy changed and the importance of infrastructure for stability in Afghanistan was understood. Christiaan Davids, Sebastiaan Rietjens, and Joseph Soeters, presented data from the so called Afghan Country Stability Picture. This is a database that contains detailed information on over 85,000 projects in Afghanistan. These projects are geared to assist in water, energy, education, and governance, improvements. (Davids, Rietjens, and Soeters 2010)
The international community, especially the United States of America, is expected to assist in stabilizing areas affected by conflict. However, those countries affected by conflict, not only must have the conditions for future stability, but also as a country, want stability. Unfortunately, Afghanistan has been a country of conflict as far back as any historian can remember and as the monetary figures for the last twelve years increase, little progression is seen in the Coalition attempts to stabilize the country. Davids, Rietjens, and Soeters found that their analysis,
Shows that indicators based on these projects may be suitable to develop a wider framework for measuring progress with respect to the creation of stability and prosperity in (post-) conflict situations. Nation building and developmental policies in general can no longer do without carefully analyzing what has been achieved with the resources that have been used. (Davids, Rietjens, and Soeters 2010, 25)
Afghanistan is unique, because as we battle insurgents militarily, we’re not in a post-conflict nation building, the nation building is part of our war strategy – in essence, we’re attempting to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghanistan civilians. Undoubtedly, our attempts to build schools and other forms of infrastructure are an attempt to correct a missed opportunity we had while providing aid to the Mujahedeen, as they fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan from 1979 – 1989. As soon as the Soviets left, the United States basically forgot all about Afghanistan, forgoing an opportunity to build schools and educate the masses. This created a power struggle within the country, severely increasing instability.
The lack of infrastructure and the government’s inability to communicate effectively has severely complicated the situation in Afghanistan, by creating more than one level of authority, or rule in the country. The Afghanistan government is so far removed from certain areas within the country that their policies and laws are irrelevant. Instead, either local and/or tribal laws take precedence and are enforced, rather than the laws established by President Karzai’s administration. According to CIA World Fact Book, there are more than seven ethnic groups with significant numbers, compared to the two dominant ethnic groups in Iraq. As you can see, any notion that Iraq and Afghanistan are religiously or ethnically tied is a serious misconception. In Iraq we were dealing with a predominantly Shi’a adversary in our initial conventional fight against the Iraqi army, followed by our longer conflict with multiple al-Qaeda affiliate terrorist organizations who followed a Sunni Islamism ideology. However, our adversary in Afghanistan, the Taliban, follows a Pashtun nationalism ideology. But it’s not only the religious beliefs and multiple ethnicities that drive the government and their people apart, corruption at all levels of the government - continues to play a major role in the instabilities in Afghanistan.
Corruption has been the leading cause in our inability to bring stabilization to Afghanistan, and it starts at the top. For example, the money that supposed to come out of Kabul, to a Provincial Leader, all the way down to a Local Leader, never makes it down to the lowest level. This is especially seen for the money that’s supposed to pay the Afghanistan Security Forces. The trickling effect is that the soldiers at the lowest level aren’t being paid and they start shacking down people at the police checkpoints. All the effects caused by corruption are taken advantage of by the Taliban, who run rampant throughout Afghanistan. The Taliban primarily use the effects as a recruiting tool, in which they sway locals by reinforcing that they can provide them with their local needs better than the government, the Afghan people are poor and are all about now, and the Taliban proves they can provide more now and a lot of times the Afghan people choose the Taliban, because their government has been full of nothing but broken promises. If swaying the locals fails, the Taliban will not hesitate to rule with fear tactics. Forcing the people of Afghanistan to bow to their wishes or have themselves and families suffer the consequences. Family is a very precious thing to the Afghan people, so they assist the Taliban. Coalition forces weren’t encountering these problems in Iraq and a little bit of analysis would have shown this major difference.
Obviously, there was little to no predictive analysis conducted in order to assess the second and third order effects of a war with Iraq. As it was stated above, at the same time we declared war on Saddam Hussein and his regime, we were knee deep in special operation mission in Afghanistan, attempting to oust the Taliban regime and rid Afghanistan of its al-Qaeda presence. Having to increase our footprint in Afghanistan was evident, but the possibility disregarded. Our operations in Afghanistan also directly impacted al-Qaeda operations moving into Iraq. The al-Qaeda leadership was not expecting the Taliban regime’s rule to crumble in the fall of 2001 and when it did, it was a drastic blow to al-Qaeda because it had been an ample breeding ground for the organization. With the exception of the Clinton administration’s cruise missile strikes on known al-Qaeda training camps in 1998, al-Qaeda for years trained and planned unscathed. As the United States footprint grew in Iraq and al-Qaeda realized they could not defeat the United States quickly in Afghanistan, they successfully developed a capability in Iraq and foreign “freedom” fighters began arriving in Iraq to begin coordinated attacks on two fronts, causing catastrophic blows to United States operations on two fronts. (Riedel 2007) However, it’s not just insurgents or “freedom fighters” we’ve been worried about, but also third party countries, which have and continue to supply and support our enemies.
There is no secret, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), have been the most widely used weapon by insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, causing the majority of American casualties during both conflicts. Iran has been suspected for years, of supplying insurgents in Iraq with new IED technology to combat the United States. According to Clay Wilson, a Specialist in Technology and National Security Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division, multiple Department of Defense (DOD) have also charged that Iran is likely supplying IEDs to insurgents in Iraq. (Wilson 2007) The supplies would not be the only thing gained by insurgents, our intelligence community needs to be able to identify new tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) and communicate that information in a timely manner throughout their respective area of operations (AO), along with the other AOs within the Region of Interest (ROI). Also, according to David R. Sabatelle, the illicit activity by Iran isn’t isolated to Iraq. Iran borders boarders Afghanistan’s opium rich western region and those narcotics are transported into Iran. (Sabatelle 2011, 314) Whether the return payment for those drugs is weapons, or money, Iran would be either directly or indirectly responsible for supplying weapons to insurgents to use against Coalition Forces. If money is the form of payment, that money is being used for continued illicit activity, likely going to Pakistan to purchase weapons and/or to fund other insurgent activities.
According to Ramasamy et al., “The improvised explosive device (IED) has been widely used by the insurgents and is the leading cause of death and injury among Coalition troops in the region.” (Ramasamy et al. 2008) However, the types of IEDs were extremely different. In Iraq, Coalition forces saw a lot of explosive formed projectile type IEDs, compared to the almost exclusive use of conventional high explosive IEDs in Afghanistan. Ramasamy and his team concluded in their research that,
The injury profile seen with EFP-IEDs does not follow the traditional pattern of injuries seen with conventional high explosives. Primary blast injuries were uncommon despite all casualties being in close proximity to the explosion. When the EFP-IED is detonated, the EFP produced results in catastrophic injuries to casualties caught in its path, but causes relatively minor injuries to personnel sited adjacent to its trajectory. Improvements in vehicle protection may prevent the EFP from entering the passenger compartments and thereby reduce fatalities.
Regardless of the type of IEDs, they have all proved costly and will likely continue to be the weapon of choice against western forces. It allows the insurgents to induce harm and rage war, without having to have direct contact. The insurgents have historically taken catastrophic defeats when in direct contact with Coalition weaponry; the IEDs have been a proven countermeasure to Coalition tactics. All the dumb terrorists are dead, they continue to adapt as we adapt, when Coalition Forces learn how to defeat a certain IED, the insurgents develop another means of delivering harm via IEDs. For example, when our jamming tactics allowed us to defeat radio frequency detonated IEDs, the insurgents simply hard wired the IEDs and had a person there to detonate the IED by hand, as the targets enter the kill zone.
Finally, what can be considered the greatest misconception of all was the Bush Administration’s assessment that an increased force-related proposal would have the greatest effectiveness. According to domestic political stability analysis by Andrew J. Enterline and J. Michael Greig of the University of North Texas,
The analysis underscores, in part, that (i) a policy of surging American troops is unlikely to succeed, (ii) a policy of belated massive escalation reduces insurgence, but much less so than an initial policy of massive invasion coupled with massive occupation, a strategy that preempts the development of a robust insurgence. (Enterline and Greig 2007, 245)
Although President George W. Bush did not use the term “surge” on January 10, 2007, as he described his revised strategy to the nation, as Enterline and Greig described it, “the strategy was widely characterized as such in the lead-up to the president’s speech.” (Enterline and Greig 2007, 245) The critics’ argument, that a strategy that involved a surge of over 20,000 American military personnel would provoke further Iraqi backlash, increase American fatalities, and impede the Iraqi government’s eagerness and capacity to assume greater responsibility, took time to gain support and never really did until United States military forces were engaged in significant battles in both Afghanistan and Iraq. It was at this time the American population began to show a continued displeasure with America’s involvement in the Middle East. Even with the expressed American displeasure of the continue wars, the Obama administration rallied the country gave General McChrystal the surge of 40,000 additional military personnel for counter-insurgency (COIN) operations in Afghanistan, and that surge suffered the same fate critics expressed concern over during the surge in Iraq. (Stratfor Analysis 2009)
Operations in Afghanistan hadn’t been going as well as the United States had hoped, and thought an increase in force would assist with operations – they couldn’t have been anymore wrong. In fact, the debate over U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has been continuously discussed since the beginning of our involvement there. It was no different here and according to Stratfor Analysis, the effectiveness of this surge remained an open-ended question. (Stratfor Analysis 2009) The United States decision makers never seemed to be fully committed to this decision, as President Obama was preparing for “surge recovery” immediately after making the decision for the increased troop commitment, as described in “Surge Recovery” and Next Steps in the War in Afghanistan: In Brief, by Catherine Dale, a Specialist in International Security. (Dale 2012) Similarly, Karl W. Eikenberry described the 2009 surge as, “the 2009 troop surge was by far the most ambitious and expensive… The apparent validation of this doctrine during the 2007 troop surge in Iraq increased its standing” (Eikenberry 2013), a clear misconception that the two surges should be compared. M. L. Roi and G. Smolynec’s research also validates this notion. They found that, “After considering force levels, resources committed to Afghanistan and the exigencies of the security situation, the authors conclude that Canadian and allied means have not been adequate to the ends sought.” (Roi and Smolynec 2008, 289) It couldn’t be any clearer that the surge of forces that saw great success in Iraq wasn’t the correct decision for operations in Afghanistan, nor should Afghanistan’s exit strategy mirror the exit strategy used as we concluded operations in Iraq.
The debate on what exit strategy best suits our retrograde from Afghanistan, can be debated in length and likely go on without a true answer. Anthony H. Cordesman described our successes in Afghanistan most accurately during his testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on February 15, 2007, where he stated,
No one can return from visiting the front in Afghanistan without realizing there is a very real risk that the US and NATO could lose their war with Al Qa’ida [sic], the Taliban, and the other Islamist movements fighting the Afghan government. We are still winning tactically, but we may well be losing strategically. (Cordesman 2007)
Tactically, the United States stands alone in proficiency and undoubtedly, American drone operations have been the most effective means of combating insurgents in not only Afghanistan, but also in countries harboring terrorist that have virtually no United States presence, such as Pakistan – the heartland of al-Qaeda, and Yemen. But, even with all our tactical success, we’ve yet to even come moderately close to meeting our strategic goal of stabilizing Afghanistan, while eliminating it as a training hub for terrorists. As the United States prepares to end operations in Afghanistan, many believe, and rightfully so, those operations will not end entirely.
The operations in Afghanistan initially were conducted by the Joint Special Forces Command (JSOC), and after mirroring the ‘surge’ philosophy of Iraq, it was obvious it was the wrong decision for operations in Afghanistan. As conventional forces continue to move out, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody if JSOC takes back over responsibility for future operations in Afghanistan. After all, Special Forces are specialized in operating as small teams, to go inside hostile environments and train local militias (local police forces) on how to conduct effective operations. And providing any needed support to those Special Forces units would be our most effective asset, drones.
Drones not only provide additional fire power, but also valuable surveillance and information collection. In an article for the New York Times, David Sanger and Eric Schmitt emphasized the concerns the Intelligence Community had if there was a complete troop withdraw. American intelligence agencies would then lose access to vital air bases used to launch drone strikes against terrorists in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Sanger and Schmitt 2014) Maintaining the ability to fly drones is crucial for the continued War on Terror. America could probably find a different launch and recover airfield if forced to leave Afghanistan entirely. However, that alternate location is going to be less than ideal. Drone operations are dependent of many different variables, especially weather. The slightest amount of precipitation and wind will often time cancel missions. If our drones are flying significant distances to get to the coverage area, we lose valuable time on target and assume a greater risk of losing these very expensive machines during severe weather to and from the target area.
Based on the research and current policies, the likelihood of a complete withdrawal is unlikely. Our Special Forces will be able to continue missions, in an attempt to keep the Afghanistan Security Forces competent and committed. If the United States completes a full withdraw, to include eliminating the option of conducting drone operations, with the instability still in the region, combined with a completely ineffective government, there is no doubt that Afghanistan would suffer the same ill-fate as the one recently suffered in Fallujah, Iraq. However, it wouldn’t stop with only Afghanistan falling back into complete Taliban rule. Afghanistan would once again become a terrorist training area and safe haven. If the United States loses the ability to influence the country, the likelihood of another significant terrorist attack, similar to September 11, 2001, increases dramatically.
Over the last 12 years, the difference of opinions concerning Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom have been vast and often times left everyone asking why our decision makers were making particular decisions. The above studies, while having righteous reasoning behind placing judgment on our decision makers and as we analyze the decisions to understand them more completely, will not address the question of why those individuals made those decisions. But what these studies did accomplish is validate that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are very much different and that the Afghanistan exit strategy must be vastly different. Let’s face it, the last American ground forces in Iraq drove out unopposed – forces cannot simply drive out of Afghanistan under the same conditions.
CIA World Factbook. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/ (accessed March 01, 2014).
Cordesman, Anthony H. 2007. Winning in Afghanistan. Testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, 15 February 2007, in Washington, DC.
Dale, Catherine. 2012. “Surge Recovery” and Next Steps in the War in Afghanistan: In Brief. CRS Report for Congress, January 6, 2012.
Davids, Christiaan, Sebastiaan Rietjens, and Joseph Soeters. 2010. Measuring Progress in Reconstructing Afghanistan. Baltic Security and Defense Review 12, no. 1: 25-51.
Eikenberry, Karl 2013. The Limits of Counterinsurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan. Foreign Affairs 92, no. 5 (Sep/Oct): 59-74.
Enterline, Andrew J., and J. Michael Greig. 2007. Surge, Escalate, Withdraw and Shinseki: Forecasting and Retro-casting American Force Strategies and Insurgency in Iraq. International Studies Perspectives: 245-52.
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