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Don't 'pull an Iraq' in Afghanistan

Massive state-building efforts are not a good use of tax dollars.

By Benjamin H. Friedman / April 3, 2008

Cambridge, Mass.

This week at a NATO summit in Bucharest, Romaina American officials asked Europeans to send more troops to the war in Afghanistan. Leaders in both the Democratic and Republican Parties agree that higher troop levels and a deeper commitment to state-building are the path to victory in Afghanistan. But both sides are wrong, and Iraq shows why.

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When it comes to military occupations, Iraq reveals that bigger isn't always better. The heavy United States troop presence at the start of the occupation helped spark the insurgency. New tactics, militia cease-fires, and resettlement moved Iraqis out of harm's way and reduced violence in Iraq in recent months. The surge in troop numbers mattered less than these factors.

But what US involvement in Iraq principally demonstrates is the limitation of American military power in reordering foreign societies. US troops can check violence in areas they occupy, but cannot repair the tensions that produce such violence. Those tensions stem from political problems that only Iraqis can solve, as the current unrest in the Shiite south indicates. If Iraq teaches Americans that flooding troops into other states racked by civil war and that undertaking massive state-building efforts is a good use of tax dollars, they are misguided.

Disappointingly, US foreign-policy makers have embraced this false lesson. The politicians and think tank experts likely to guide the next administration's military policy seem to believe that if Americans only plan better, coordinate more, and master counter-insurgency doctrine, the country can succeed in future wars meant to build foreign governments. The public may have learned enough to change their opinion, but Washington's hubris is essentially intact.

Consider the recent push to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan. John McCain agrees with the current administration that more European soldiers are needed, but seems chary of sending more Americans there given his commitment of troops to Iraq. His friends at the American Enterprise Institute ignore this problem and back another American surge. Meanwhile, the loudest backers of increasing troops in Afghanistan are Democrats.