Skip to main content

Afghanistan, the next Iraq?

By Anish Goel
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Wed June 25, 2014
Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard at their position in the Omar Khaled village west of Mosul near Tal Afar on Sunday, August 24. They have been battling 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. Kurdish Peshmerga forces stand guard at their position in the Omar Khaled village west of Mosul near Tal Afar on Sunday, August 24. They have been battling 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
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
67
68
69
>
>>
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 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
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 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 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 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
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?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT