Thursday, May 22, 2008

The unlearned lessons of Afghanistan in Iraq

Is there anything to be learned from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan backing the mujahideen in their fight to expel the Soviets and overthrow the Soviet backed Afghan government? Specifically, is there anything to be learned that is applicable to today’s situation in both Afghanistan and Iraq? If nothing else, it is clear that applying an exclusively military solution to a problem that is as much or more political and economic than it is military is the most obvious unlearned lesson.

MDC at Foreign Policy Watch has these thoughts after re-watching the 2007 movie, Charlie Wilson’s War based upon the story of Congressman Charlie Wilson’s attempts to first fund weapons and later non-military aid for the Afghans:
The film ends, as you might imagine, with the humiliating Soviet withdraw from Afghanistan and a jubilant American Congress congratulating itself on its assistance to the Afghan mujahideen. But Washington's political attention to Afghanistan evaporates as the first tank battalions rolled back into Moscow. In one of the last scenes, Representative Charlie Wilson - a devoted party animal that took up the Afghan cause in the US Congress - is seen urging his fellow lawmakers to support legislation allocating a handful of a million dollars to build a school in Afghanistan. After five hundred times that amount spent on anti-tank and helicopter weaponry, what's one million for a school? But he's nearly laughed out of the committee room for his efforts. He warns - to no avail - of the dangers of abandoning a country, rebounding from a decade of war, where no undisputed political authority exists and half of the population is under the age of fourteen.

The movie doesn't come out and directly say it, but implicit in the film's conclusion is that Washington's disinterest in what was to come in Afghanistan would come back to haunt the US. Much of this lesson has been absorbed as it relates to Afghanistan today, as the crux of NATO's efforts there focus on rebuilding the country as much as neutralizing then eradicating the Taliban. And to state the obvious, achieving the former makes the latter task inevitable.

While there's a world of difference between what happened during Americas' support of the Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion and what's going on today in Iraq, there are plenty of parallels to be drawn and lessons to be learned for the future of the US' involvement in Iraq. For better or for worse, Iraq's politics have become intertwined with America's - and perhaps irreversibly so.

For the foreseeable future, the state of Iraq will be grappling with the perennially unfolding aftermath of the invasion and the subsequent political deadlocks among rival factions and bloody sectarian fighting. On top of this, the country itself will continue to exist with a bruised and potentially vengeful population, a damaged economy, and weak central authority seeking to govern the patchwork quilt that is Iraq. Fighting for control over the country's resources and vying for political, tribal, and religious influence is likely to persist for years to come. The fact that there is no military solution in sight in a country where the political "fix" doesn't often seem attainable either does not bode well. The US will have to take stock of these realities and adopt its long-term strategy in kind as it weans itself off a narrowly-focused military approach.

We shouldn't harbor any illusions that the withdrawal of the last set of troops from there or the establishment of a compliant government in Baghdad will end the country's woes. Five years into the protracted war, we're in for the long haul.

There are limits to what the American military can do in Iraq and those limits were reached some time ago. The political chaos cannot be solved with American soldiers but by diplomats and representatives from all of Iraq’s parties and neighbors. Economic stability will follow political stability. External threats from groups like Al Qaeda can more easily and effectively be isolated and dealt with by the American and Iraqi military once Iraq’s overlapping civil wars are resolved politically. American soldiers are doing their part but they cannot succeed alone. The current policy of a narrowly-focused military approach is not a prescription for peace or stability coming close to resembling democracy.

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