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.
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.”
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.