Us soldier Afghanistan children

Withdrawal Lessons From Iraq

The United States should think twice about how to withdraw while protecting Afghan democracy at the same time.

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Us soldier Afghanistan children

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On January 11 President Barack Obama declared that the United States is, after 12 years of conflict, moving towards a “responsible end” to the war in Afghanistan. His meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai marks an emotional turning point in the conflict. The joint agreement to accelerate the military transition to Afghan forces is a step in the right direction, but it is important not to be carried away. The American fighting role in Afghanistan should end. Yet it is crucial to withdraw responsibly, to avoid the mistakes made when leaving Iraq.

Similar to the choices facing leaders in Afghanistan today, the decision to withdraw American troops from Iraq in December 2011 was a difficult one, commensurate with the conflict’s complexity. Yet, despite its merits (which were considerable), the exit underscored the low priority the Obama Administration placed on Iraq; in the rush to leave a draining war, the Administration left a country unready to support itself. The effects of the premature drawdown are being felt across the Iraqi political landscape today, as Nouri al-Maliki continues to move menacingly towards authoritarianism and fissures open between the country’s disparate factions.

The US military withdrawal created a vacuum in which Maliki has been able to abuse the stillborn democratic political system left behind. The leverage that the military presence afforded US diplomats has evaporated, leaving American ambassadors woefully unable to prevent Maliki from abusing government. Instead, he is reinforcing his grip on the military chain of command, using arrests to intimidate dissenters, and ensuring loyalty from his intelligence and judicial services.

These actions, amongst others, are deeply subversive of the envisaged democratic state for which much blood and money were expended. The Iraqi opposition, wary of engaging in the political process, has looked to regional neighbors for support. The protests across Iraq over the past two weeks further underscore this outward search for allies. The opposition leadership is turning to foreign allies among the Sunni Arab states, mostly in Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

This situation was not predestined for Iraq, nor is it for Afghanistan if the right lessons are learned. Between 2008 and 2010, Iraq made stunning progress that surprised even the staunchest cynics. Democratic incentives began to influence the Parliament in Baghdad and politicians across the country. Iraqis were pushed to conduct politics in ways that, as Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution described, “were uncomfortable and alien for them. Yet they were having to do it, they were all learning democratic processes.”

Yet US leaders did not wait for this fledgling democracy to take root. Their departure just as these processes were beginning to transform Iraq’s political landscape opened the gates for the traditional political culture to reassert itself. American soldiers were, for better or worse, a barrier to the fear that had defined Iraqi politics for decades. Once they were gone, the country reverted to what it once knew: A political system in which a deep distrust of government defined a populace reliant on its own wit to protect itself.

Afghanistan could face a similar fate if American leaders do not understand the lessons from Iraq. Progress in Afghanistan during recent months is worthy of praise, but should be greeted by cautious optimism.

Most importantly, both Obama and Karzai have affirmed their support for negotiations with the Taliban, which has expressed a tentative desire to come back into Afghanistan’s political fold. Each party supports the establishment of an office in Qatar to facilitate peace talks, and although all sides have a ways to go before they understand the others’ “red lines,” analysts are hopeful that negotiations are near.

There are, of course, challenges. How much faith can western and Afghan leaders have in their Taliban interlocutors? What role will third party actors like Pakistan can play, in the coming months? Many senior Taliban leaders have refused to negotiate until the Afghan Constitution is amended and Karzai is gone. But within these parameters progress is possible. And if Karzai follows through on his promise to step down next year, a successful start of this conversation will become even more likely.

Negotiations with the Taliban hinge on a synthesis of military and diplomatic lines of operation. The Obama Administration needs to combine military security with increased pressure on politicians to open negotiations. Yet the time to make such a calculation is fast ending. Distressingly, it seems the current administration is sliding towards withdrawal without any attempt to pursue diplomatic options. Obama and Karzai have jointly adopted the transition narrative, emphasizing the transferal of security and administrative responsibility to the Afghan government. Just how ready Kabul is to take over these challenges is uncertain. For Washington, though, this narrative is ideal, as it allows policymakers to hand their problems to the Afghans, without paying a high political price of pursuing negotiations.

Afghanistan stands a great chance of being ripped apart from within and without. Heading a state with no precedent of unity, Afghan leaders must reconstruct a country from political zero. Pakistani, Iranian, and even Indian, Chinese, and Russian influence could further weaken Kabul’s ability to exercise authority over border regions. If conversations with the Taliban break down, internecine conflict could add to these woes.

In this volatile environment, Afghanistan will presumably face a turnover of its government in 2014. Without proper safeguards, Karzai could go the route of Maliki. Like in Iraq, without the leverage provided by a strong military presence, there will be little barrier to such a reversal of democratic progress. The US should think twice about how to withdraw and protect Afghan democracy at the same time. It is a step in the right direction that Karzai agreed to grant US soldiers legal immunity — which Maliki denied — but whether this promise holds is another question.

In Iraq, a good-intentioned but ill-timed withdrawal of American soldiers left a country still finding its political feet without ground on which to stand. The promising developments in the last years of the occupation were largely lost as Maliki reverted to authoritarian practices, the political factions reverted to divisive diplomacy, and the population reverted to the politics of fear. It is yet to be seen whether Afghanistan will follow the same trajectory. The war has cost over 3,000 coalition and countless Afghan lives, and needs to end. But it leaders should examine their own history to avoid snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

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Photo Credit: The U.S. Army

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