As Americans struggle to understand the complexities of the post-conflict reconstruction of Iraq, they should consider America's post-Taliban experience in Afghanistan, for Afghanistan has provided the template for the U.S. approach to Iraq.
The same policy-makers who shaped America's response in Afghanistan to al-Qaida's 9/11 attacks are shaping America's policy toward Iraq, where they are repeating every important theme of America's Afghan project. That should be a cause for worry, because things are not going well in Afghanistan.
Politically, in Afghanistan the United States pushed through the Bonn Process, which provides for a graduated transition from an interim authority to a transitional administration to a constitutional convention to national elections, all to occur over 2 1/2 years.
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad maneuvered Hamid Karzai into the presidency.
Karzai is a moderate, pro-Western leader from an important family of the Pashtuns, who are Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. In general, however, the Pashtuns were shunted aside in the new Afghan government, because the Taliban movement had been drawn predominantly from the Pashtuns. Thus, the Karzai government leans heavily on an army and ministries staffed by Tajiks and other northern minorities, and Pashtun resentment swells the growing ranks of "new Taliban."
The run-up to the Iraq war was much longer than the period before America began hostilities in Afghanistan. Moreover, Iraq's exile groups are far more organized than those of Afghanistan were, but otherwise the process will have the same features as in Afghanistan.
Expect it to be a well-defined but abbreviated (two- or three-year) transition from an interim authority dominated by an acceptable moderate to a new constitutionally mandated government.
Khalilzad, who is now U.S. envoy to the "Free Iraqis," would like to maneuver Ahmed Chalabi into the top job. Chalabi is a moderate, pro-Western leader of the Iraqi National Congress, and he hails from an important family of the Shiites, Iraq's largest religious group. If the majority of southern Iraqi Shiites want leaders unacceptable to the United States, such as Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, do not be surprised if those leaders and their followers are marginalized just as former king Zahir Shah and the Pashtuns were in Afghanistan.
On the security front, in Afghanistan the United States consistently refused to engage in peacekeeping, despite the pleas of Karzai, the United Nations and the State Department; the Pentagon preferred to keep nearly 9,000 U.S. troops there actively hunting for Osama bin Laden.
Law and order was left to a combination of the International Security Assistance Force, which patrols Kabul, and the fledgling Afghan National Army, which the United States has helped to train but only after it was created virtually from scratch.
The resulting "security gap" has been filled (and taken advantage of) by the militias of local warlords, who began to pop up before the Taliban were gone. Even more disturbing has been the resurgence of Taliban and other anti-American forces in the rural areas, prompting a growing chorus of concern among international observers in Kabul and the Karzai government that insecurity will derail Afghanistan's reconstruction.
In Iraq, larger ground combat operations and plans for a U.S. occupation mean that more U.S. forces were deployed there, but the initial plans were to draw down those forces to two divisions (30,000 troops) by fall. The expected "security gap" was to have been filled by allied forces in the northern and southern zones, and by Iraqi local authorities, which means either former Baathist security forces or quasi-independent militias - neither an appealing prospect.
However, the severe breakdown of law and order in Iraq has led new U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer III to put more emphasis on bringing Baghdad under control. Much more assertive peacekeeping, a delay in troop reductions, and deployment of 20,000 more U.S. troops (including military police) over the next several weeks are all belated but critical steps in the right direction.
It is understandable that an administration that dislikes peacekeeping was reluctant to pursue such a strategy in Afghanistan. The post-9/11 learning curve was steep there, but it is imperative not to make the same mistake in Iraq.
In terms of the economic and social reform critical to winning the peace, Afghanistan has gotten off to a frustratingly slow start, and the window of opportunity may already be closing. Despite receiving $1.9 billion in aid from international donors since January last year (who recently pledged another $1.9 billion for the next year), the money received totals only $64 per person, far less than the $195 per person in East Timor from 1999 to 2001, or the $228 per person in Kosovo during that period.