Iraq versus Afghanistan: A Surge Is Not a Surge Is Not a Surge

One critical component in the current debate on whether to surge more U.S. forces into Afghanistan centers on popular conceptions about the surge in Iraq. Those advocating an Afghan surge argue that what worked in Iraq will work in Afghanistan; skeptics contend that conditions are quite different. In this case, a general caution about gross comparisons between Iraq and Afghanistan is in order, as the lessons may not be as transferable as some imagine. 

Q1: Are there fundamental differences between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Yes, and they are considerable. The first difference is the location and concentration of the population; this has a significant impact in classical counterinsurgency (COIN) focused on population protection. Iraq’s population is concentrated in a collection of key cities along the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys, and many of the cities most important to the insurgents were in and around Baghdad. Most areas beyond the river valleys are sparsely populated and possess little military significance in an urban counterinsurgency. By comparison, Afghanistan is physically bigger; its population is larger, more rural, and more dispersed; and its terrain is much more challenging. All of these factors imply a need for significantly greater numbers of forces and a much more complex logistics support system in Afghanistan than was the case in Iraq.

Second, the basic “stabilization” problem is quite different. The challenge in Iraq is essentially one of rebuilding, whereas in Afghanistan it is one of building from scratch. Prior to March 2003, Iraq was a functioning state with enormous potential for petroleum-fueled growth. It limped along for some time, but it met most of the basic criteria of statehood. The Ba‘athist structure was obviously inadequate and immoral. Nonetheless, there was some tradition of central authority and organization on which a new, more reasonable order might take root and grow. In addition, Iraq boasted an educated population and professional business and government classes. None of these factors exist in Afghanistan. In recent memory, Afghanistan has never approached even a basic level of national organization or sophistication. The Soviet war and occupation, the subsequent Afghan civil war, and warlord-led fragmentation destroyed all pre-existing political institutions.As a consequence,Afghanistan has limited national infrastructure, no effective central government beyond Kabul, a largely illiterate and fiercely independent population, and a rudimentary (at best) “grey” economy.

Third, the motivations of the two conflicts’ contestants differ. Much of the resistance in Iraq was about competing groups “getting into” the government on their terms. Iraq’s civil war, poisoned by intolerance and extremism, centered on the division of the wealth of the state. History, tradition, and ethnicity were gasoline on a fire raging over competing visions for Iraq and the proper role of its various constituencies. The war in Afghanistan is at least partially more primal and less material. The Taliban fight us and their “government” in hopes of co-opting or dominating the feudal system that has characterized Afghanistan throughout much of its existence. The fight is more about rejection of central authority than it is about the seizure and exercise of it. This makes the challenge of accommodation significantly more complex.

Q2: What underlying conditions existed in Iraq prior to the surge that contributed to its “success”?

While there exist multiple competing versions of the “truth,” we collectively observed at least five key underlying (and interrelated) factors in Iraq that set the conditions for the reduced violence that followed the surge.

  • First, the Maliki government finally agreed to allow U.S., Coalition, and Iraqi forces full freedom of action against all destabilizing elements, including Shi‘a militias. This raised U.S. credibility with vulnerable Iraqi populations and enabled U.S. forces to often act as a neutral arbiter.
  • Second, key constituencies complicit in more nationalist strains of the Sunni insurgency “flipped,” securing and policing themselves in exchange for material support, modest political guarantees, and employment.
  • Third, Iraq’s urban character enabled U.S. and Iraqi forces to concentrate the surge’s offensive, defensive, and stabilization efforts on key population centers. These were naturally amenable to isolation enforced by the erection of massive concrete barriers, followed by clearing and holding territory insurgent-free through the establishment of combat outposts and joint security stations. At a minimum, this offered the chance for deliberate building as security improved.
  • Fourth, the most violent sectarian actors on both sides reached the natural limits of ethnic cleansing by early 2007. Iraq’s sectarian landscape—specifically, Sunni and Shi‘a—had at that point been redrawn. Thus, the time was right for some modest, low-level reconciliation; ironically, this also made Iraq’s sectarian boundaries more “defensible” for U.S. forces.
  • Fifth, by early 2007, U.S. forces had finally amassed the skills and capabilities necessary to effectively defeat and police an active civil conflict. Over a period of months, U.S. surge forces “massed” in key sectarian fault-line regions, allowing us to (1) operate effectively as a neutral inter-positional force within and between vulnerable communities; (2) take the offensive against key extremist sanctuaries; and (3) closely monitor, mentor, and, if necessary, sanction the behavior of Iraq’s security forces.

Q3: Do those conditions exist in Afghanistan today?

Only to a limited degree.

  • First, U.S. forces are now very experienced in the conduct of opposed stability operations. They have been at it for eight years now. Thus, most of the gains U.S. forces accrued in understanding, organizing, and equipping for counterinsurgency operations and violent civil conflict persist, and (with some adjustments) translate.
  • Second, apart from the broader questions about the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan regime, the central government has not yet reached the point where it is willing to take unbiased action against corrupt and illegal behavior, nor will it permit Coalition Forces to do so. So long as this remains true, U.S. and Coalition forces will be seen by at least some Afghans as the muscle behind a corrupt, unresponsive, and impotent central government. Adding more security forces, be they Coalition, Afghan, or both, may exacerbate rather than ameliorate this problem.
  • Third, it is unclear whether we can peel away “reconcilables” to create an “Afghan Awakening.” Perhaps we can, but continued moves toward political centralization in Afghanistan may harm our chances for doing so.
  • Fourth, as noted above, Afghanistan’s fight is largely a rural one in nearly impenetrable terrain. Protecting the populace is likely to require substantially more troops than will be available in the foreseeable future.
  • Finally, as for the timing of an Afghan surge, there appears to be no widespread sense of “burnout” on the part of the contestants. To the contrary, the Taliban are clearly growing in strength, and much of the population at large is at once indifferent or hostile to us, their government, and the Taliban. In the face of 40,000 additional U.S. troops, is the time ripe for the Taliban to lay down their arms in order to arrive at a political accommodation? Probably not, at least not yet.

Q4: Did the Iraq surge actually result in a strategic “win”?

The utility of the Iraq surge as a model is predicated on the assumption that it actually worked from a strategic standpoint. This is the most fundamental flaw in the “pro-Afghan surge” logic. History is still being written in Iraq. Therefore, we should be cautious about prematurely declaring strategic victory over what in hindsight may come to be seen as U.S. tactical and operational success squandered by Iraqi political intransigence. There is general agreement that the surge in Iraq accomplished the immediate security objective of decreasing violence and that it did afford Iraqis “time and space” for political accommodation. But the jury is still out on whether Iraqi politicians will effectively consolidate those gains into a durable national compact that aligns with U.S. interests in the region. Violence fell when many sides determined it was time to seek their objectives through alternative means. It appears to be gradually reemerging today, however, perhaps not surprisingly given the fundamental political issues (e.g., Kirkuk, revenue sharing) that remain unresolved.

In the end, what the U.S. surge in Iraq did not do was lead Iraq toward the kind of sweeping political reconciliation that guarantees its future success. The security increases were a step along the road to greater stability, and it remains to be seen how far down this path Iraq will progress. The story as to whether subsequent political, economic, and social actions created a sustainable foundation for Iraq, consistent with our national objectives, is still unfolding. Judging the ultimate outcome of our actions there will take time. The "known known" is that we are on a path to leave Iraq having expended a great deal of U.S. blood and treasure. The "known unknown" is how the 2007 surge contributed to the long-term stability and political viability of Iraq and the region as a whole into the future. Therefore, its validity as a success to emulate in Afghanistan should be scrutinized intensely.

Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at CSIS, a visiting professor at the United States Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute, and a former Army strategist.

Maren Leed is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at CSIS and has worked in multiple organizations within the Department of Defense.

Richard “Ozzie” Nelson is a senior fellow at CSIS, where he covers counterterrorism and homeland security issues. He is a former Navy pilot with substantial counterterrorism experience within military and interagency organizations.

Maren Leed

Nathan Freier