Iraq is an industrialized nation. Afghanistan is not. Iraq has massive oil reserves. Afghanistan does not. Iraq has paved roads. Afghanistan, largely, does not. The two Middle Eastern Islamic nations are almost completely different, yet they will forever be linked by the simultaneous U.S. military conflicts there during the last decade.
It is impossible, then, to not compare the United States' sudden withdrawal of all military assets from Iraq in 2011 to what the country hopes to achieve in Afghanistan, from which President Barack Obama says all combat troops will depart by the end of 2014.
The death toll continues to rise in Iraq from bloody, sectarian violence. The rate of car bombs is increasing. Islamic extremists operate with impunity in some areas to plan domestic attacks, as well as assaults on neighboring countries like Syria.
"Numerous insurgent groups, including al-Qaida in Iraq, remain active and terrorist activity and sectarian violence persist in many areas of the country at levels unseen since 2008," the State Department warns on its website.
"The security situation in Iraq is deteriorating rapidly," said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., after returning from a trip there in August. "If left unaddressed, these destructive trends will continue to rapidly destabilize the country, and a United States foreign policy that does not recognize this reality will be very problematic for Iraq, for us, and for the region."
Amid these concerns, a group of military, diplomatic and political experts met at the Wilson Center foreign policy think tank in Washington D.C., Thursday afternoon to discuss how the U.S. possibly avoid such disaster from repeating itself in Afghanistan. Here are four lessons from their experiences in Iraq that the U.S. should consider as it pries itself from Afghanistan and the longest war in its history.
DON'T DWELL ON THE NUMBERS
Much has been made of the to-be-determined "enduring force" that will stay behind in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of all combat troops. This yet unknown number of troops will largely focus on training and advising the fledgling Afghan forces, and thus fall outside of Obama's definition of "combat troops."
Obama was elected on a mandate of bringing America home from war, but he cannot help but notice the ongoing sectarian violence that is ripping Iraq apart. The U.S. quickly and suddenly withdrew all forces in 2011 after receiving that request from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The number of American and allied troops that will remain behind in Afghanistan remains a mystery, and will define the extent to which the U.S. needs to prepare for withdrawal before December 2014. Top military experts have offered their own opinions, but the president remains mum.
"The important thing for us is not the number," says Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, an Army officer with extensive command and leadership experience in Iraq who now heads up the Military District of Washington. He spoke with U.S. News after participating on a panel at the Wilson Center.
"People tend to focus on the number of people," he says. "From a military perspective, what we really want to know is: What is it you want us to get done?"
Leaders in Washington, particularly on the president's National Security Council, have to determine the expansiveness of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan after 2014, so the military itself can come up with options for how to achieve that, Buchanan says. This takes into account the nuanced relationship the U.S. currently has with Afghanistan, and how that might shift.
"There will be different 'end states' on how much it's going to take," he says of that troop number. "In the best of all worlds, we can help inform that decision-making process by saying, 'What is it you want us to do?' then let me give you options with varying amounts of risk."
"There will be different end-states on how much it's going to take," Buchanan says.