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Postcards from Tradocia

The Good War

Several depressing reports out of Afghanistan lately (see Captain’s Journal, Michael Yon, and Free Range International) reveal something that I’ve considered for some time: that history might show that Iraq, not Afghanistan, was the “good war.” Despite the continual drumbeat of the antiwar left about Iraq being a distraction from the “true war on terror,” I propose that Afghanistan is the true strategic backwater of the two wars, much more akin to the “quagmire” that Iraq was supposed to be. There are (at least) four reasons for this; or, more specifically, differences in four key areas that make Iraq a more important theater of war than Afghanistan. They are: strategic position, resources, human and societal capital, and the presence of a definable and achievable end state. These thoughts are a little unpolished – I just banged this out but lord knows, you could write a book or two on this topic so I have to put something up, even if it’s scatterbrained.

Strategic position

Iraq anchors the Arabian Peninsula, and is a crucial hinge for the Middle East. From the American perspective, it is easily accessible by land, sea, and air, by way of two major U.S. allies (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait). By shattering Saddam Hussein’s regime, the U.S. drove a wedge into the region, separating Ba’athist Syria from its main ally as well as buffering the Shi’a bizzaro-state of Iran.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, is a rugged, landlocked country, sandwiched between Iran, Pakistan, and several of the former Soviet republics. It is inaccessible by sea, and land routes are difficult and dangerous, primarily coming through our nominal ally of Pakistan. This leaves air transport as the primary means of supply and troop movement, and even this is largely dependent on the goodwill of shaky allies like Kyrgyzstan. Holding Afghanistan gives almost no advantage, geographically speaking, since it is the definition of “middle of nowhere.”

Resources

Iraq has water. Iraq has farmland. Iraq, of course, has oil. People say Iraq was a “war for oil” like it’s a bad thing, but face it: without oil, there is no modern civilization. In time, oil will be replaced with something better, but for now, it’s what we’ve got. I don’t buy the war-for-oil theory (didn’t work out too well if it was), but insofar as you can actually call OIF a “war for oil,” it wasn’t some Bush-Cheney-Halliburton axis of greed plot, but rather, a fight to keep one of the most valuable substances in the world out of the hands of terrorist dictatorships.

Afghanistan, on the other hand, has very little, except opium (being the leading exporter in the world).

Human & societal capital

Iraq has a history of civilization dating back for millenia, and has in modern times developed a highly educated and relatively prosperous society (prior to the rise of the Ba’ath Party). Even under Saddam Hussein, Iraq had the trappings of a modern civilization: electricity, roads, central and local government, etc. This means that Iraq has a foundation on which to build functional, free (or free-er) society.

Afghanistan has virtually nothing. Despite having been self-governed since 1919, Afghanistan doesn’t seem to have developed a tradition of structured government. (The Soviet invasion in 1979 certainly didn’t help.) The vast majority of the population is illiterate, poor, and dies at a young age (life expectancy is about 44 years, according to the CIA World Fact Book). Farmers and villagers in the remote mountains of the country don’t know or care about a central government; some are so isolated that American soldiers are being mistaken for Soviet ones (per Marcus Luttrell in Lone Survivor).

Definable and achievable end state

The war in Iraq is already over. The end state was: establishment of a democratic government, capable of managing the security of the nation, with sectarian and terrorist violence at an acceptably low level that would permit the withdrawal of U.S. forces. While the outcome was certainly in doubt, it was always possible to at least imagine this end state actually happening (largely because of the aforementioned factors).

Afghanistan shares the same declared end state, but in reality, I think it’s an impossible goal. How do you declare that a government is in control of the country when such a thing has virtually never happened in its history? How do you repeat the “Anbar Awakening” in a country where many people don’t care who’s in charge, as long as they’re able to live the same simple way as they have for hundreds of years? Furthermore, the nation is just too vast and wild to be pacified – our heavily armed and armored infantrymen can’t root out every cave, every hiding spot in the hills and mountains. We could send a million men there and it still probably wouldn’t be enough.

3 Comments

  1. ‘Afghanistan shares the same declared end state’

    Ask the layperson and your end state is typically: The death of Osama Bin Laden. A further conversation would usually result in: The loss of power for the Taliban.

    My point is that I can hardly find a person who remotely cares about the Afghanis forming and successfully running their own democracy. Average-guy just want one man dead and the threat of Islamic fundamentalist related terrorism kept from American interests. The plans of the administration to create a secure democratic state – are not plans that the greater public really cares about. It’s always felt like lip-service to me.

    It even seems as if people routinely forget that people are & have been serving over in Afghanistan for almost a decade now. And how long did it take (during our 8-9 year stay) did it take for an “End State” to even be created.

  2. Apparently, I did not spell check or proof read my rant. Ooops – Where’s the edit button when you need it?

  3. Another home run from Free Range International:
    General McChrystal has shut all the fast food joints down at the Kandahar Airfield in preparation for the coming offensive because he needs the room to bring in more forces. There are currently over 20,000 military and contractor personnel there supporting units in the filed which number around maybe 2000 troops on a busy day. I guess that number is to increase significantly but bringing in more fobbits at this stage of the game is pointless. Somebody needs to stop worrying about how much beer the German’s drink, how many fast food concessions are on the super big box FOB’s, who is walking around the FOB’s without wearing eye protection and which soldiers are out on operations without wearing all their Land Warrior experimental bullshit and start focusing on the Taliban, the Afghan people and how to separate one from the other. The future of war for the rest of our lifetimes will feature very little peer to peer wars pitting one state against another and a lot of what we see in Afghanistan which is battle in the daily context of everything else.

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