The current chaos in Iraq is largely attributed to the ill-conceived US invasion of Iraq, the dismantling of the Ba’athist state apparatus and the hasty withdrawal of American troops. But, Iraq was not ready enough to assume control of its own security situation when the US decided to withdraw forces in December 2011. The wisdom of that decision will long be debated, but having made it, the United States is now understandably reluctant to undo it. In Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has crafted one of the best success stories in recent history. Is a similar manoeuvre on the cards in Afghanistan? Will Afghanistan see a similar turn of events after US drawdown?
The ISIS has rampaged through western Iraq and a few thousand kilometres away is Afghanistan where the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) are withdrawing, with Americans contemplating less than 10,000 troops on ground. The Iraqi and Afghan landscapes have festering ethnic and sectarian divides in common.
Even as the Obama administration sorts through a galaxy of unattractive options, none of which is guaranteed to provide stability, it would be well-advised not to overlook one of the biggest strategic lessons of the Iraqi deterioration. The prospect of the Afghan Taliban and its al Qaeda peers mounting a similar offensive against the regime in Kabul are an alarming reality. While Iraq and Afghanistan are of course vastly different in terms of demographics, history and terrain, the parallels emerging between them in terms of security implications and political process are too important to ignore.
An extremist militant group rising quickly and taking over large swathes of the country; a government focusing more on retribution and vengeance than reconciliation and governance; and a supposedly well-trained army essentially disintegrating in the face of real conflict; all of these characteristics describe the situation in Iraq, but all may be equally descriptive of Afghanistan in only a few short years.
Similar to Iraq, Afghanistan has an ethnic, well-organized and well-funded insurgent group poised to retake significant amounts of territory once US troops leave.
The genesis of the crisis in Iraq has its roots in Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s reluctance in exercising inclusive governance. The Kurds, 17 per cent of the population, remained at the periphery ‘only to become more and more assertive. Further, Maliki never really made the effort required to draw Sunnis, who make up approximately 30 per cent of the population, into the fold.
In Afghanistan, ethnic fault lines have proven, historically, more difficult to negotiate than sectarian divides. However, the Afghan parliament has a fair representation of ethnic groups. The army, though dominated by the Pashtuns and Tajiks, is quite representative.
There can be no doubt that the Taliban, having seized power once before in Kabul, are only biding time until they can do so again. Much like the ISIS, the Taliban take advantage of the limits of federal influence and govern by fear and aggression. It is only a matter of time before the Taliban, newly emboldened by the recent prisoner swap that freed five militants, takes control of southern Afghanistan and challenges Kabul’s authority.
Compounding this situation is the shaky and corrupted political process under way, which makes Iraq look like a well-functioning democracy. In a variation of Mr Maliki’s sectarian tendencies, outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has done little to unite Afghanistan’s many tribal factions during his 12 years in office, instead often fomenting discontent. There is little reason to believe that the new Afghanistan President will make it a priority. As a result, Afghanistan could become even more politically divided than Iraq is today.
Perhaps the biggest wild card in Afghanistan’s future is the Afghan National Army. Much like the Iraqi army, the Afghan army will be charged with maintaining the security situation once the United States departs. And much like the Iraqis, the Afghans have been trained by the United States. While the Afghans may be courageous soldiers, there have been numerous reports of lacklustre performances; so much so that their abilities in actual combat situations remain uncertain. In addition, Afghanistan has never had a real national fighting force, meaning there are few examples and fewer role models for current soldiers to emulate.
Given all this, it is not difficult to look at the situation in Iraq and see Afghanistan’s future. Indeed, with a resurgent Taliban, political instability in Kabul, an untested army and if the United States continues with its plan to drawdown forces at the end of 2014, especially without an agreement in place for the retention of American security personnel, a future similar to Iraq’s may be inevitable.
Afghanistan’s future clearly hangs in the balance. The US troop presence and the stalemate between the ANSF and the Taliban prevent the slide into an Iraq-like situation for now, but the ingredients for long-term instability remain firmly in place. However, unlike Iraq, this bleak Afghan future need not necessarily become reality. The United States still has an opportunity to avoid making the same mistakes it made in Iraq.
To accomplish this, the United States needs to redouble its efforts at training the Afghan army to develop it into a legitimate fighting force. It needs to put diplomatic pressure on the new president to embark on a unification and reconciliation process. And most important, it needs to plan for a withdrawal based on appropriate benchmarks and conditions, not on a political timetable.