A Surge in Clarity

As President Obama and the Congress consider what policy options to pursue in Afghanistan, we must understand that Afghanistan is not Iraq, and that Afghanistan is not a failed state.

In the current policy debate, Afghanistan is repeatedly and erroneously compared to Iraq. People who ought to know better argue that an additional surge in U.S. troops in Afghanistan will quell the rising violence there and allow the Afghan government to take over, as supposedly happened in Iraq. U.S. military forces invaded both Iraq and Afghanistan; the comparison between the two should end there.


Prior to the U.S. invasion, Iraq had an industrial and prosperous oil economy and an urban, literate population; life expectancy was 70 years. Iraq has been a player in global trade from the Mesopotamian era until today. Iraq now has the fourth largest proven oil reserves in the world.

Iraq was run for decades after colonialism by a brutal centralized government. The Bush administration invaded to impose “democratic” regime change. But Iraq had functioning central governance and a modern economy before the U.S. invasion; afterward the United States “merely” tried to reconstitute and recreate these. The United States did not disarm or demobilize insurgents in Iraq but bought them off; it paid the Sons of Iraq and the Awakening movements not to fight. With U.S. forces pulling out, these programs are ending, but the Iraqi government is not eager to hire these former fighters, who number over 110,000. This is why many, like Ryan Crocker, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, believe the worst violence in Iraq may lie ahead.

The Afghan case is quite different. Afghanistan is not a failed state, but a fictional state. As in many regions of the world, there has never been a sovereign state here in practice, but only in unexamined Western default assumptions. Afghanistan never had a strong central government or economy. Af-ghanistan is the world’s sixth poorest state, with one of the worst infant mortality rates. Afghanistan is not industrialized and lacks infrastructure.

The people are largely illiterate, rural and poor, with a life expectancy of 44 years. Afghanistan is an assemblage of often fiercely autonomous tribal areas. Insurgency and violence are quite local, as are the rural economies whose products are largely cut off from global trade, with the exception of a minority of the country, the southern seven (of 34) provinces, which grow most of the world’s opium.

Afghanistan supplies over 93 percent of the lucrative global market in opiates. Heroin is one of the world’s most valuable commodities, more valuable than oil or gold by many orders of magnitude. The opium trade accounts for an estimated 97 percent of Aghanistan’s gross domestic product.

These illegal narco-profits fund local and regional warlords, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda terrorists based across the border in Pakistan, and they challenge attempts at legal governance. Fighting the opium trade is dangerous; deaths of poppy-eradication workers in Afghanistan increased sixfold in 2008. If the United States wanted to pay these fighters not to fight or grow opium, the drug-money inflated price tag could be beyond the reach of the recession-depleted U.S. budget. The United States does not have a good record in fighting wars on drugs.

There are success stories in Afghanistan, from Catholic Relief Services’ agriculture projects in the northwest to increased access to health care and education for women and children in areas where Taliban influence has waned. The costs are large. The United States has spent over $228 billion in combat operations alone in Afghanistan, with billions more to be spent on aid and veterans’ payments for decades to come.

U.S. troop levels have increased from over 5,000 in 2002 to more than 68,000 today. Over 38,000 NATO troops also serve. More than 1,500 military service members have died in Afghanistan since 2001 (over 900 of them Americans). Afghan civilian casualties are estimated at over 5,000 since 2006; totals since the war began may be double that.

To assess any of this accurately, we must remove our “Iraq-colored glasses” to see Afghanistan as it is and more effectively calibrate U.S. foreign policy.

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James Lindsay
8 years 11 months ago
I agree with Maryann Cusimano Love on Afghanistan not being a state (A Surge in Clarity). It would be best to dismember it, giving the Uzbek sector to Uzbekistan, the Tajik sector to Tajikistan, and creating states for the Pashtun and Baluchistani areas (with territorial grants from or to Iran and Pakistan). If the Pashtun area continues to harbor al Quesda's leaders, they should be dealt with separately, either by our military or the Pakistani police.


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