As Iraq battles Al Qaeda in Fallujah, Pentagon takes note. Will Afghanistan?

Anbar Province, where Iraq is battling insurgents, was once lauded for the decision of tribal elders to cast out Al Qaeda. The question is whether Afghan officials are receptive to the Iraqi lesson.

A gunman holds a rocket-propelled grenade during clashes with Iraqi security forces in Fallujah, Iraq, on Sunday.

Conditions in Iraq’s western Anbar Province – once a model for what was going right in the Iraq war – are deteriorating with an influx of Al Qaeda insurgents into the area.

The city of Fallujah, in which US troops saw some of the toughest fights of the war, is once again the site of a pitched battle, this time between Al Qaeda-affiliated insurgents and Iraqi soldiers.

So, could all of this serve as a cautionary tale for Afghanistan?

Pentagon officials hope so, particularly as US officials work overtime to broker a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which will set the terms for US troops to remain in the country past their current 2014 deadline for withdrawal.

“While Afghanistan is not Iraq, what’s happening in Iraq was relatively foreseen, and we should take it as a cautionary tale,” says retired Lt. Gen. James Dubik, senior fellow at the Institute for the Study of War and the former commander of the US training mission in Iraq. 

“The caution is that we withdraw from Afghanistan too quickly or too early, as we did in Iraq.” 

The pressure is on for US officials to convince their Afghan counterparts to get the BSA signed. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said that that he doesn’t think the agreement needs to be brokered until after the April 5th presidential elections – a convenient stance, since it also means that Mr. Karzai doesn’t have to take responsibility for what could be politically unpopular decision.

But White House officials are stressing that the agreement needs to be signed in “weeks, and not months.” 

That’s because the Pentagon must start planning for its post-2014 Afghanistan presence. “We can’t contemplate a continued presence there absent a signed bilateral security agreement,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday.

The Iraqi government’s current experience battling insurgents is especially poignant since Anbar Province was once lauded for the decision of tribal elders to cast out Al Qaeda. The question is whether Afghan officials are receptive to the Iraqi lesson.

When Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari made the first official visit by an Iraqi official to Afghanistan last month, he signaled that the Karzai government would be wise to sign the BSA.

“We are here to share with our Afghan brothers our experience in combating and fighting terrorism and counterterrorism measures,” Mr. Zebari told reporters during his trip. “Our expectation of the government of Afghanistan is to sign the BSA with the US, because Afghanistan needs US support.” 

As for Iraq, Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear that there will be no US boots on the ground there. 

And Republican lawmakers who have taken the fighting in Fallujah as an opportunity to chastise the Obama administration for pulling US forces out have not been quick to advocate for boots on the ground, either.

“There are a number of wise options short of boots on the ground,” says one Republican congressional staffer who spoke on condition of anonymity. These include intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, as well as logistics support and training. “Had we been providing these resources all along, this security erosion might have been prevented.”

Iraq has been advocating for F-16 fighter jets, as well as Apache gunship helicopters. “But without the capacity to use them well and translate that into meaningful success on the ground, that’s a lot more action than affect,” says Mr. Dubik, the retired lieutenant general, who launched the training of Iraqi pilots in 2007. “What it takes to fly F-16s and drop bombs in a relatively precise manner is not something you acquire in a few months.”

What might be more effective, Dubik says, is “some small package of air support.” Such US air support should be “temporary and limited and not based in Iraq,” he adds.

The Pentagon could also send a US military planning cell to “help Iraqis with coordinating an air-ground campaign that is urban and rural,” Dubik says. “That kind of planning is beyond their capacity right now.”

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