Since the beginning of May, roughly as many American soldiers have died in Afghanistan as in Iraq, even though there are about four and a half times as many in Iraq.
Since this is apparently the only metric that matters, all of a sudden, there is some media attention to the fact that has been obvious for several years, which is that the situation in Afghanistan is steadily worsening.
Indeed, Ahmed Rashid, whose new book Descent into Chaos is a forceful indictment of U.S. policy in Afghanistan after the war, has been making the rounds trying to convince people that Afghanistan is a worse problem globally than Iraq and deserves more attention.
Rashid may well know more about Afghanistan and in particular about its political history over the past three decades than anyone else in the world. His book confirms in copious detail what has been clear to serious observers of U.S."nation-building" in Afghanistan: the fact that the United States has been, especially in the first several years, committed to the warlords rather than to any potential nascent secular democratic forces; that people like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz had no interest in building democracy in Afghanistan; that the new Afghan government had almost no resources for governance while actual policy was made by other forces; that virtually all reconstruction was for show and benefited no one but warlords, local elites, and political allies of the United States; that a huge opportunity to improve the lives of Afghans at very little cost has been lost.
Sadly, he succumbs to the same delusions as Barack Obama and a number of liberal Democrats who know little or nothing about Afghanistan.
Across the board, from Rashid to Obama to NATO to American generals - and perhaps one day even to Republicans and the Bush administration - there is a growing drumbeat for an increased American presence in Afghanistan and an even more aggressive prosecution of the war against the neo-Taliban. In the coming months, you can expect many pundits, flush with deep understanding of the supposed eternal verities of counterinsurgency theory and with a perception of tremendous success in Iraq, to pile on.
The logic of these calls is deeply flawed. In fact, the U.S. troop presence in Iraq made matters worse in every time period from April 2003 onward, with the partial exception of September 2007 until the present. Iraq had degenerated into massive internecine violence, to the point of creating significant internal rifts within sectarian communities and even within individual armed organizations; some of those groups made decisions to stand down and others to abandon erstwhile allies and support the Americans. The positive role played by the U.S. troop presence and its shift in strategy was largely confined to the fact that it created a greater incentive for these various realignments.
In Afghanistan, however, the level of violence is currently low (by the country's normal standards) - except for coalition violence against suspected insurgents and insurgent violence against the coalition. The Toronto Globe and Mail recently did a major interview project with 42 ground-level Taliban fighters and concluded that the majority of them fight for one simple reason - that there are foreigners in their country running it.
And, according to Antonio Giustozzi's recent book Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop, the neo-Taliban are much more careful about their violence than the various Iraqi insurgent groups and are more careful about their crazy religious edicts than the old Taliban were. This is not to deny that they kill civilians in their suicide bombings, kill teachers and foreign aid workers and shut down schools, and do various other awful things, but rather simply to say that they may well be attentive enough to the considerations of the population in southern Afghanistan to retain legitimacy and the ability to continue their struggle.
Even if we leave aside consideration of their safe-haven in Pakistan's tribal areas, there is no reason to believe that any reasonable increase in offensive operations by coalition forces will defeat the insurgency; indeed, we seem to be at a point currently where increasing of counterinsurgent operation will actually increase the size and power of the insurgency.
We have a major opportunity not to turn Afghanistan into Iraq. Alternatively, we could ramp up the occupation, let loose a spiral of violence that kills hundreds of thousands, then, when everyone is once again saturated with it, have a "surge" and announce "success" when the level of violence once again dips down. Sadly, the people who will suffer if we do this have no voice in the decision.
Rahul Mahajan teaches at New York University. He has been to Iraq twice and reported from Fallujah during the siege in April. He maintains a blog Empire Notes
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