Afghanistan Is Not Iraq, So U.S. Best Not Surge Ahead Blindly

Tribalism and geography of 11th-century state would make fight even tougher, writes Christopher Brown.

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Christopher Brown is a senior research associate at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Va.

Americans are often accused of fighting the last war. Unfortunately, this has a greater ring of truth to it than most would care to admit and normally ends up costing us far more in blood and treasure than if we just considered how new conflicts differ from previous efforts. This is the very danger facing America as it prepares to take the successful surge strategy from Iraq and transplant it to Afghanistan.

If America attempts a cookie-cutter approach in Afghanistan, is it likely to prove once again that "war is God's way of teaching Americans geography." That is because Afghanistan is nothing like Iraq. This is true in terms of both the physical and cultural socioeconomic geography that America is confronting.

At its most basic level, Afghanistan is the same as it has been for centuries, with a life expectancy of only a few decades. It is only in the mythical rhetoric used against the Soviets in the late '70s and '80s that Afghanistan existed as anything other than a tribal, or if you will warlord-based, society. Its king was often either the strongest or more often the most skilled of the warlords capable of balancing the competing interests of the various parties both within and outside the borders in a condition that might best be understood as something between peace and war. More often than not, however, the king simply controlled some of the major urban areas, allowing lesser warlords free rein in their respective regions in exchange for their deference.

It is also a sad but forgotten reality that what we call Afghanistan was simply the ungovernable border area between the 19th and early 20th century Russian, British, and Persian empires. Its value in terms of resources or even strategic position was never sufficient to have justified the expense on the part of either the Russian or British empires of taking permanent control. Instead, Afghanistan was useful as an agreeable buffer between their Central and South Asian spheres of influence, with both nations mounting occasional punitive expeditions or diplomatic missions to line the pockets of the local leadership to assert their relative power. Thus Afghanistan was—and in many ways has been preserved—in a retrograde state of social and economic development more reminiscent of turn of the 11th than the 21st century. In fact, slightly less than a quarter of the entire population is literate, and the rates are even lower in the areas at the center of the Taliban resurgence.

With this history in mind, one must ask the simple question: What is the true purpose of the surge? After all, for its many flaws and problems, Iraq had some semblance, and in many areas far more than a semblance, of what we consider civil society and capital infrastructure. For all of its sectarianism, the people of Iraq, with the possible exception of the Kurdish population, have a larger national identity. Afghanistan simply does not have these, but instead is a nation of rural individuals who are defined primarily by their tribal and familial ties. As such, the only way that the surge, as it was conducted in Iraq, will succeed is if the United States military becomes the largest arbiter of force or, in other words, the most powerful warlord in the country. Such a role is not something that either the military or the American government would be comfortable in assuming, and in fact such a role would fundamentally undermine the interests of the United States. Therefore, what are America's options in confronting the challenges of Afghanistan?

One possible option could be the dividing up of the country into two or three separate countries along tribal lines. Such a strategy would offer certain short-term advantages but would likely result in the new nation from the western portion falling completely under the control of Iran, the southern Pashtu homeland becoming a source of instability for the region, and the northern portion following its Tajikistan neighbor, becoming an economically weak state that would eventually, out of survival interests, become a quasi-satellite of Russia.