Two wars, one quandary

Our view: The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are so tied together in the public mind that the president can't claim success in one without victory in the other

August 03, 2010

President Barack Obama clearly hoped to capitalize on fulfilling a major campaign pledge when he told a veterans group that he was pulling all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by the end of the month "as promised and on schedule." But while the drawdown is a welcome development — and one of the few pieces of good news the administration can point to regarding the two wars Mr. Obama inherited on taking office — it's not likely to overshadow the continuing bad news from Afghanistan.

There was also a certain irony in Mr. Obama's pitch that the Iraq war is winding down as a result of his policies. Though he campaigned against the "bad" war in Iraq as a costly and unnecessary distraction from the "good" war in Afghanistan, as a senator he had strongly criticized the troop surge in Iraq that is now widely credited with turning the tide of battle there. Congressional Republicans lost no time in pointing out that the president was taking credit for the success of a policy he himself initially opposed.

Moreover, the drawdown of U.S. combat forces in Iraq may not necessarily mean a drastic reduction in the American presence there. That's because the departing troops are to be replaced by a "surge" of thousands of civilian contractors, who will take over many of the functions previously performed by the military. Their jobs will range from providing security to a greatly expanded contingent of State Department personnel, to building roads, schools and bridges, to working with Iraqi officials to improve governance and taking on a larger share of day-to-day intelligence gathering and analysis.

Whether the efforts of civilian contractors will be enough to maintain stability is an open question. Infighting among the country's fractious political class has produced a stalemate that leaves the country without a new government nearly six months after national elections were held. Coming on top of the U.S. military withdrawal, that's created a power vacuum marked by an increase in insurgent attacks and continuing shortages of basic services such as electricity and water, which have seriously undermined ordinary Iraqis' confidence in their government.

In Afghanistan, meanwhile, the Obama administration has been forced to re-evaluate its counterinsurgency strategy, which is based on protecting civilians and building schools and roads to win the population's loyalty. But the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai remains widely distrusted and riddled with corruption, while the Afghan national army and police are notorious for brutalizing the population they are supposed to protect.

The weaknesses of the government and security forces are the main reason for the mixed success of the operation earlier this year in Marja, where Taliban fighters were pushed out by American forces in the first weeks of the offensive but then were able to slip back and reassert control because Afghan officials were unable to provide effective governance. The same problem is slowing U.S. efforts to retake the southern city of Kandahar, the spiritual stronghold of the Taliban, which were supposed to start this summer but now appear on hold.

Add to that reports over the weekend suggesting that building roads and schools has been far less effective in dislodging the Taliban than targeted killings of insurgent leaders through commando-style raids and drone strikes, and Afghanistan starts to look like the same sort of quagmire Iraq threatened to turn into before the surge — except there's no assurance the tactics that worked in Iraq will prove equally successful in Afghanistan.

The bottom line is that Iraq and Afghanistan remain dangerously precarious, and the public has grown so weary of both wars that even the announced Iraq troop withdrawal may not be enough to give Mr. Obama the boost he is seeking as a politician who has come through on a major campaign promise. On the contrary, now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem virtually indistinguishable in the public's mind, it's hard to see how the president can get the credit for success in either place unless he can claim it in both — and that is a very tall order indeed.

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