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Reuters March 12, 2003

Afghanistan offers US lessons for rebuilding Iraq

By Jane Macartney, Asian Diplomatic Correspondent

SINGAPORE, March 12 (Reuters) - More than a year after the U.S. military triumph in Afghanistan, power still comes from the barrel of a gun and government control barely reaches beyond Kabul into the mountains that ring the capital.

That campaign offers many lessons for the United States to apply even in so different a land as Iraq with its centralised administration and experienced, nationwide civil service.

"They (the United States) just left Afghanistan to the wolves," said Michael McKinley of the department of political science at the Australian National University in Canberra. "In Iraq, they have very different aims."

In Afghanistan, warlords with armies several times bigger than Afghan President Hamid Karzai's official forces command vast rural fiefdoms, ignored by U.S. army troops and special forces whose job is to track down Osama bin Laden and not to keep order.

"The U.S. has no interest in Afghanistan apart from putting a pipeline through it," said McKinley.

"They have very little interest in reform of civil society in Afghanistan whereas they have long-term objectives for the Gulf and the Middle East that are going to begin with the war on Iraq."

The reconstruction of a land such as Afghanistan, where near-medieval traditions hold sway, few are literate and a man measures his importance by possession of a Kalashnikov, requires a hefty commitment of both money and manpower.

And the price tag for putting Afghanistan back together pales beside the likely bill for Iraq, which could cost U.S. taxpayers $20 billion a year for several years, according to an independent task force formed by the Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

That assumes the deployment of a 75,000-strong post-war stabilisation force at a cost of $16.8 billion, $2.5 billion for reconstruction and $500 million for humanitarian assistance in the first year.


"It's going to be a major headache for the United States in the same way that Afghanistan is proving to be more of a headache than the U.S. might have anticipated originally," said Francois Boo of San Francisco military think tank GlobalSecurity.org.

Still, Boo said Afghanistan was much more troublesome for Washington than Iraq would be.

"Iraq has had a centralised government. Afghanistan is much more tribal and has been that way forever. Iraq is easier to bring under centralised control despite ethnic groups urging independence."

Critics complain about what they see as a lack of commitment by the United States to Afghanistan since the overthrow of the austerely Islamic Taliban militia in November 2001.

"The weakness of American foreign policy is that they tend to devote less attention to picking up the pieces than conducting military campaigns," said Alan Dupont of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

"There is an impressive degree of willingness to contribute forces... but on nation-building, on long-term commitments, they tend to be weak on that front," he said.

Despite the vastly different U.S. goals in Iraq, Dupont saw a parallel with Afghanistan that could yield valuable lessons for Washington -- if it were willing to learn them.

"They had the big bang, they had success, they set up a new regime but now it has fallen off the policy agenda. The United States hasn't walked away, they just haven't demonstrated the commitment they needed to make," Dupont said. "That makes me very pessimistic they can get it right in Iraq."


Like Somalia, Afghanistan falls into a category of failed states that Washington regards as beyond reform and where it decides to engage only in threat management, analysts say.

By contrast, Iraq offers more strategic opportunities and hence may command long-term commitment to a new administration.

The United States has clearly demonstrated a far greater interest in Iraq, committing nearly a quarter of a million troops to a region where experts say it believes it can establish a base from which to exert long-term influence over the Middle East.

"Part of the problem with nation-building is that it's difficult," said Boo.

That means that while Washington may show greater commitment in Iraq than it has in Afghanistan, democracy may not be the result.

"You can't just bring together a bunch of guys who all have diverging interests and aspirations to power, greatness and wealth and say to them that building a nation overrides their priorities," said Boo. "That is naive."

The quickest and easiest way to avoid chaos in Iraq would be to install a centralised government with lots of authority.

"In the short term I'm not sure that is compatible with democratic ideals," said Boo.

But the United States needs such government if it is to ensure a stable environment for the permanent troop bases in Iraq that many analysts see as a major goal of war.

"What one would expect absolutely would be the establishment of three very large, permanent bases in Iraq," said Paul Rogers, head of peace studies at Bradford University in Britain.

Rogers, echoing several other analysts, said that would have at least two significant consequences.

"The very big increase in a U.S. presence in the region will be a gift to al Qaeda in terms of recruiting," he said, luring adherents to bin Laden's cause to oust Americans from the region.

A second outcome would be to jangle Iran's nerves given the proximity of U.S. troops to its western border.

"There are so many complexities," said Dupont. "The administration may not have fully comprehended the enormity of the task, both military and financial, to make Iraq a functioning democracy."

Copyright 2003, Reuters Limited.