Skip to main content

Afghanistan, the next Iraq?

By Anish Goel
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Displaced Iraqis receive clothes from a charity at a refugee camp near Feeshkhabour, Iraq, on Tuesday, August 19. They have been fleeing from the militant group ISIS, which has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq. Displaced Iraqis receive clothes from a charity at a refugee camp near Feeshkhabour, Iraq, on Tuesday, August 19. They have been fleeing from the militant group ISIS, which has taken over large swaths of northern and western Iraq as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate that stretches from Syria to Iraq.
HIDE CAPTION
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
Iraq under siege
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Anish Goel: The dilemma faced by the U.S. with Iraq could happen in Afghanistan
  • He says: A weak Iraqi government with a poorly trained Army faces a fierce insurgency
  • When U.S. troops leave Afghanistan, will government be able to stop Taliban, he asks

Editor's note: Anish Goel is a senior South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. He previously served in the White House's National Security Council as senior director for South Asia and is director of geopolitical affairs for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The current chaos in Iraq is tragic in almost every way. In retrospect, it is easy to conclude Iraq was not nearly ready enough to assume control of its own security situation when the United States made the decision to withdraw forces in December 2011. The wisdom of that decision will long be debated, but having made it, the United States is now understandably reluctant to undo it.

Even as the Obama administration sorts through a galaxy of unattractive options, none of which is guaranteed to provide stability, it would be well-advised not to overlook one of the biggest strategic lessons of the Iraqi deterioration. That would be the warning signal it provides for another country headed down the same disturbing path: Afghanistan.

While Iraq and Afghanistan are of course vastly different in terms of demographics, history and terrain, the parallels emerging between them in terms of security implications and political process are too important to ignore.

Anish Goel
Anish Goel

An extremist militant group rising quickly and taking over large swaths of the country. A government focusing more on retribution and vengeance than reconciliation and governance. And a supposedly well-trained army essentially disintegrating in the face of real conflict. All of these characteristics describe the situation in Iraq, but all may be equally descriptive of Afghanistan in only a few short years.

Similar to Iraq, Afghanistan has an ethnic, well-organized and well-funded insurgent group poised to retake significant amounts of territory once U.S. troops leave.

There can be no doubt that the Taliban, having seized power once before in Kabul, is only biding its time until it can do so again. Much like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Taliban takes advantage of the limits of federal influence and governs by fear and aggression. It is only a matter of time before the Taliban, newly emboldened by the recent prisoner swap that freed five militants, takes control of southern Afghanistan and challenges Kabul's authority.

Compounding this situation is the shaky and corrupted political process under way, which makes Iraq look like a well-functioning democracy. In a variation of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's sectarian tendencies, outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has done little to unite Afghanistan's many tribal factions during his 12 years in office, instead often fomenting discontent.

While both of the leading presidential candidates have pledged to focus on unity, there is little reason to believe that either will make it a priority. Ominously, one candidate has already boycotted the electoral process before the results of the June 14 run-off election even being announced. As a result, Afghanistan could become even more politically divided than Iraq is today.

Perhaps the biggest wild card in Afghanistan's future is the Afghan National Army. Much like the Iraqi army, the Afghan army will be charged with maintaining the security situation once the United States departs. And much like the Iraqis, the Afghans have been trained by the United States. As we heard in Iraq, the training of the Afghans will be sufficient preparation to defend the country from any threats that may arise.

While the Afghans may be courageous soldiers, there have been numerous reports of lackluster performances. So much so that their abilities in actual combat situations remain uncertain. In addition, Afghanistan has never had a real national fighting force, meaning there are few examples and fewer role models for current soldiers to emulate.

As a national army, the Afghans came from a much less mature and much less professional starting point than the Iraqis. As illustrated in Iraq, without the right training and leadership, soldiers may not be willing to defend against insurgents, despite an enormous numerical advantage.

Given all this, it is not difficult to look at the situation in Iraq and see Afghanistan's future. Indeed, with a resurgent Taliban, political instability in Kabul, an untested army and if the United States continues with its plan to drawdown forces at the end of 2014, especially without an agreement in place for the retention of American security personnel, a future similar to Iraq's may be inevitable.

However, unlike Iraq, this bleak Afghan future need not necessarily become reality. The United States still has an opportunity to avoid making the same mistakes it made in Iraq.

To accomplish this, the United States needs to redouble its efforts at training the Afghan army to develop it into a legitimate fighting force. It needs to put diplomatic pressure on the new president as soon as he takes office to embark on a unification and reconciliation process. And most important, it needs to plan for a withdrawal based on appropriate benchmarks and conditions, not on a political timetable.

Such a change in strategy would undoubtedly be domestically unpopular. But sometimes, unpopularity is a necessary price for avoiding a far worse alternative in the future.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 8:35 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT