Iraq crisis: A cautionary tale for US exit from Afghanistan?

Some in Congress are alarmed by reports of Iraqi forces throwing down their weapons and fleeing in the face of insurgents. They are asking the Pentagon if the same could happen after US troops leave Afghanistan.

Larry Downing/Reuters
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey listens to US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel during a hearing of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 18, 2014.

As Islamist rebels continue to hold ground and even to make headway in Iraq, questions are circulating in Washington about whether those developments offer a cautionary tale for Afghanistan.

That has been a concern of lawmakers who have questioned Pentagon officials, repeatedly, about such a prospect, particularly after the White House announced a new timetable last month to draw down US troop presence in Afghanistan to zero by the end of 2016.

“What have we learned about the situation in Iraq that we can apply to Afghanistan, in terms of their ability to defend themselves once we’re gone?” Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois asked during a recent hearing with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey.

“It is my judgment that the two bear very little comparison,” Secretary Hagel responded. “Afghanistan is not Iraq – internally, historically, ethnically, religiously.”

The differences include pluses and minuses, General Dempsey noted. “The Afghans are far more tenacious fighters than their Iraqi counterparts. That is both reason for optimism and reason for concern,” he said, alluding to the possibility that fighting in Afghanistan could also continue long after US troops leave.

Unlike Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Afghanistan’s two presidential candidates – currently engaged in a runoff election – have both said they will sign a security agreement to keep a residual presence of US troops in the country, Hagel noted.

In light of recent developments in Iraq, however, US lawmakers are not reassured of the reliability of Afghan forces that US troops have spent a decade mentoring.

“We’d had years of training provided by US forces in Iraq, then saw so many of the Iraqi military just throw down their arms when militants advanced on them,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont said. “I’m not trying to compare apples to oranges, but do we face a similar situation in Afghanistan?”

Dempsey, who was in charge of training Iraqi Security Forces from 2005 to 2007, did not rule out that possibility. Iraqi security forces threw down their arms “because they had simply lost faith that the central government in Iraq was dealing with the entire population in a fair, equitable way,” he said. 

“You asked if that could happen in Afghanistan – the newly elected government will have a lot more to say about that than anyone here,” Dempsey added. “But I can’t completely convince either myself or you that the risk is zero, that that couldn’t happen in Afghanistan.”

President Obama, for his part, has stressed that the crisis in Iraq is not prompting him to reconsider the US role in Afghanistan. “We’re prepared to have a residual force that helps to continue to train their forces, to continue to help stabilize the situation as you have a new government coming in,” he said in response to an MSNBC question.

That said, it will ultimately be up to that new government to do the hard work of keeping the country together, Mr. Obama said. “Keep in mind that our goal in Afghanistan was to decapitate Al Qaeda, which had carried out 9/11. That has been accomplished.” 

Afghanistan is a sovereign country, Obama added, “that is going to have to deal with its own security. That doesn’t mean that there couldn’t potentially be problems there, just as there are in Iraq, unless we are prepared to stay indefinitely in all these various countries – something we can’t afford and [that] would involve, over time, accusations that we were occupying these countries.”

But pulling US forces out of Afghanistan too soon could prove dangerous as well, warned Sen. Kelly Ayote (R) of New Hampshire. "I would hope that the president would take some of the lessons that we're seeing happening in Iraq and not repeat them in Afghanistan."

Staying indefinitely is different from arguing that “if you leave too early, most of your investment can be lost as a result,” James Dobbins, the State Department’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told lawmakers last week. 

There is one further pivotal difference between the two countries, Mr. Dobbins added. “In Iraq, the people didn’t want us and not a single Iraqi politician was prepared to advocate our staying. In Afghanistan, the people overwhelmingly want us to stay,” he said. “In Iraq, they could get along without us, at least temporarily, because they had plenty of money. In Afghanistan, they can’t possibly get along without us.” 

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