Afghanistan is not the next Iraq

PRT Nuristan security forces element conducts presence patrol in district

Could Afghanistan be the next Iraq?

Within foreign policy circles, it’s become one of the most frequently posed questions of the summer. And according to many, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

“A future similar to Iraq’s may be inevitable,” warns Anish Goel, a South Asia fellow at the New America Foundation.

“I watch and analyze the mistakes in Iraq, and I think many of them are going to come to pass in Afghanistan,” opines Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.

“I fear what we are seeing in Syria and Iraq could happen in Afghanistan next year,” declares Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, a former top military official in Great Britain.

“We don’t want Afghanistan to repeat Iraq but all parties have to think about it,” contends Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, a top supporter of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah.

And none other than War on the Rocks’ editor-in-chief Ryan Evans predicts that the next U.S. president “might confront an ISIS-style bind in the Hindu Kush.”

It’s easy to understand this sentiment. Afghanistan, like Iraq in 2011, is an insurgency-buffeted state beset by internal divisions facing the impending departure of international combat troops. And as in Iraq three years ago, these troops will leave the fate of the host country in the shaky hands of fledgling security forces.

In recent weeks, the Afghan Taliban launched a fresh assault in Helmand province. Pakistan’s current military offensive in North Waziristan is reportedly pushing militants into Afghanistan. And commanders of extremist groups elsewhere in Pakistan vow to deploy their fighters to Afghanistan next year to help the Taliban.

Little wonder many observers fear that Iraq’s rapid destabilization — hastened by the rampaging radicals of the Islamic State organization, formerly known as the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq — could soon be replicated in Afghanistan.

Could such predictions come true? Perhaps. But at the same time, there’s reason to believe that Afghanistan could avert Iraq’s frightening fate. Here’s why.

Afghanistan is on an upward trajectory.

On the eve of the drawdown, Afghanistan is a far different country than it was in October 2001 when international forces toppled the Taliban-led government. Recent years have seen expansions in press freedoms, advances in women’s education, and improved health care (though to be sure, during the era of Taliban rule, these features were virtually nonexistent in Afghanistan). More to the point, Afghan security forces are getting stronger. Recent Pentagon assessments note “substantial progress,” and specifically “increased abilities to plan, carry out, and sustain high-level kinetic operations.” Tellingly, Afghans are expressing optimism about their country’s future. The recent resolution of a potentially destabilizing election crisis gives even more reason for hope.

Iraq, by contrast, was in a downward spiral in the years leading up to the departure of U.S. troops in 2011. In 2009, Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki launched, in the words of Ali Khedery, a former Baghdad-based senior U.S. official, “a systematic campaign to destroy the Iraqi state and replace it with his private office and his political party.” Over the next two years he sidelined opponents, fired generals, and manipulated the judiciary. The country’s interethnic political coalition, Iraqiya, fell apart. Iraq’s problems make Afghanistan — a precarious work in progress in its own right — look like Switzerland by comparison.

Afghanistan’s divisions are not as sharp and violent as Iraq’s.

Iraq’s deep sectarian cleavages — once held together by Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial rule — have helped boost the clout of the virulently anti-Shia Islamic State. Sunni soldiers refusing to fight the Islamic State, and Sunni tribal fighters linking up with it, share a desire to strike back against a government that has actively marginalized their sect. In 2011, amid the U.S. withdrawal, Maliki, a Shia, was systematically disenfranchising Sunnis. He arrested and purged Sunni leaders, appointed Shias close to Iran to top cabinet positions, and released Shias from prison. Maliki, according to Khedery, even refused to throw his full support behind the Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar province who helped U.S. forces beat back al-Qaeda. Maliki is as starkly sectarian as the nation he leads.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan — home to a Shia minority of about 20 percent — does experience sectarian strife. This could increase if the Pakistani anti-Shia group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi follows through on its threat to deploy fighters to Afghanistan, and if the Pakistani Taliban, which has increasingly targeted Shias, continues to partner operationally with the Afghan Taliban in Afghanistan. None of this, however, is as serious as Iraq’s sectarian problems (the Afghan Taliban has actually condemned sectarian attacks).

Afghanistan’s sharpest divisions occur along ethnic lines and, as evidenced by intra-Pashtun tensions, within ethnic lines. And in fact, tensions between Hazaras (most of whom are Shias) and Pashtuns (most of whom are Sunnis) illustrate that ethnic and sectarian divides can sometimes be intertwined in Afghanistan. Still again, these are less dangerous than Iraq’s sectarian ones. Say what you will about Hamid Karzai, but unlike Maliki, he has governed relatively inclusively. Afghan commentators point to Karzai’s “ability to bring together diverse constituencies” — including through interethnic dialogues he regularly convened. Afghanistan’s two presidential candidates have running mates representing different ethnicities from themselves, and the election winner has pledged to form a government of national unity. Most significantly, militant organizations in Afghanistan generally aren’t in the business of exploiting ethnic divides—not even the Taliban, which currently propagates national, anti-state narratives more so than ethnic ones (the group does have a past record of persecuting Hazaras, however).

The Islamic State has no equal in Afghanistan.

Militant organizations in Afghanistan specialize in attacks on civilians and on Afghan and foreign troops. They lack the capacity or desire to sweep across the country and seize large swaths of land. The Afghan Taliban, while potent, is plagued by infighting and sustains frequent battlefield losses (thanks to the increasing operational capacities of Afghan security forces). The Haqqani network also remains strong, but its capabilities have been degraded by drones (though it is true the drone war will likely be dialed down after 2016, after all U.S. troops are out of Afghanistan). Additionally, other jihadist groups operating in, or threatening to operate in, Afghanistan harbor greater designs elsewhere. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi is largely Pakistan focused, while Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed are India focused.

This isn’t to suggest the frequent comparisons between the Islamic State and the Taliban are misplaced. The Afghan Taliban conquered much territory on its way to seizing power in the 1990s, and supreme leader Mullah Omar has spoken of himself as a caliph. Still, the present-day Taliban is very different from the 1990s Taliban, and not just because of the damage inflicted on it by counterinsurgency operations. Today, more and more Afghans are rejecting the Taliban — as exemplified by the millions that defied its threats and voted on election day. Some observers even describe the drug-peddling Taliban as more of an organized crime syndicate than a militant group.

U.S. military forces will be drawn down more gradually in Afghanistan than in Iraq.

It’s easy to overlook a fundamental difference between Iraq and Afghanistan: Zero U.S. troops stayed in Iraq after 2011, while nearly 10,000 will likely remain in Afghanistan next year. This modest residual presence certainly won’t defeat the insurgency or stabilize Afghanistan; such objectives weren’t achieved with 100,000 troops. Still, the functions of this small noncombat force will help fill capacity gaps within the Afghan military. These include logistics, air transport, and intelligence. More importantly, the residual force will provide a psychological boost to Afghan soldiers, who suffer from rampant desertion problems (last year, according to U.S. officials, 30,000 of Afghanistan’s 185,000 Army troops deserted).

To be sure, this residual troop force will be reduced to zero by the end of 2016. Some may therefore conclude that an Iraq-like meltdown will simply be deferred until then. Others may contend that Afghanistan’s security situation could deteriorate much sooner. Pakistan’s military offensive in North Waziristan may cause anti-Afghanistan militant sanctuaries there to be transplanted to Afghanistan. Additionally, the Afghan Taliban’s fresh assault on Helmand is spilling into populated areas with devastating civilian consequences. Finally, we now know that prior to the deal that ended the election crisis, supporters of Abdullah Abdullah were making actual preparations to seize government centers in several provinces—a revelation that attests to Afghanistan’s deep political volatility. Overall, the challenges for Afghan security forces, which suffer from widespread drug addiction and illiteracy, among other problems, are immense. And the implications for stability are deeply troubling.

Nevertheless, the factors working in Afghanistan’s favor highlighted above suggest that all hope is not lost.

In their classic book on public policy decision-making, Thinking in Time, Richard Neustadt and Ernest May warn against succumbing to “seductive analogies.” Because of the similarities between the two countries, it may be tempting to view Afghanistan through the lens of Iraq, and to base future policies in Afghanistan on past experiences in Iraq. Yet it’s also important to acknowledge their very real differences. Afghanistan may well go the way of Iraq, but such a path is far from inevitable.


Michael Kugelman is the senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC. He can be reached at or on Twitter @michaelkugelman.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army