Today, the conventional wisdom in the United States is that the so-called "surge" in Iraq has been a stunning success, and its critics have been discredited. That's why surgeniks Max Boot, Frederick Kagan, and Kimberly Kagan can smugly write in the March 13 New York Times things like, "Make no mistake: there is hard, costly fighting ahead in Afghanistan. But the fight is worth pursuing, and the odds of success are much better than they were in Iraq when we launched the forlorn hope known as the surge."
At the same time, the conventional wisdom in the United States also holds that the situation in Afghanistan has become quite dire. That's why Boot, Kagan, and Kagan are advocating a new surge for Afghanistan. Even more, the conventional wisdom is that the situation has become dire in large part because we've barely been trying in Afghanistan. As the three write, "The main challenge is to overcome years of chronic neglect in terms of economic development, government services and above all security, which has allowed the insurgency free access to large swaths of the country."
I'm not accustomed to agreeing with this neocon troika, but they are exactly right to finger neglect as a key culprit. Which leads, naturally, to the question: Neglect by whom? Well, by the Iraq hawks and especially by the surge boosters. By contrast, critics of the war in Iraq have been warning about the attention gap in Afghanistan for years.
As far back as the fall of 2005, my Center for American Progress colleagues Larry Korb and Brian Katulis were calling for strategic redeployment from Iraq on the grounds that the conflict there had to be put into a broader context of American security interests. They observed that "in Afghanistan, more troops are urgently needed to beat back the resurging Taliban forces and to maintain security throughout the country."
About two years ago, on March 14, 2007, Katulis called for "measures ... to make Americans safer by extricating U.S. ground troops from refereeing Iraq's various civil wars, strengthening our country's ground forces stretched thin by extended deployments, and focusing attention on completing the mission left unaccomplished in Afghanistan, the staging grounds for the September 11th attacks."
And it wasn't just in think tanks. In August 2007, as the surge was first getting underway, then-Sen. Barack Obama made the case that in terms of fixing national-security policy, "the first step must be getting off the wrong battlefield in Iraq, and taking the fight to the terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan."
Indeed, way back on Feb. 17, 2003, Howard Dean joined the overwhelming majority of mainstream Iraq War critics in observing that instead of launching an unnecessary war, "we must follow through on our commitments in Afghanistan to prevent that troubled land from ever again serving as a base for terrorism."
In other words, though it's true that the surge has worked better than many critics (myself included) initially predicted, our overall strategic judgment has been overwhelmingly vindicated.
Years of ignoring Afghanistan have created a terrible situation. Had the United States put 100,000 troops in Afghanistan from the get-go, plus the tens of thousands of additional allied soldiers (the bulk of them effective forces from NATO allies like the U.K., Spain, and Denmark) that the Bush administration initially dragged with us into Iraq, the security situation in that country never would have deteriorated to anything like its present condition. And that kind of heavier deployment would still have been far cheaper than the years of war in Iraq, which would have freed up tens of billions of dollars annually for development projects in Afghanistan and aid to Pakistan to keep those countries cooperative.
Instead, we invaded Iraq, and the mission in Afghanistan became chronically deprived of resources -- money, military manpower, and attention -- and as a result the situation deteriorated for years. But despite problems, back in 2005, 2006, and 2007, the international military presence in Afghanistan remained broadly popular, and it would have been relatively easy to turn the situation around. Troops and resources could have flowed out of Iraq, where they were unwanted, and into Afghanistan where they would have been welcome and useful. This is what progressives proposed at the time, and it was a good idea.
But it didn't happen. And now we stand at a knife's edge. Years of neglect have produced a larger and bolder insurgency. And combating that insurgency in the absence of adequate manpower has led the American military to over-rely on airstrikes and firepower. This, in turn, has brought about an unacceptable level of civilian casualties while not doing nearly enough to protect Afghans from the depredations of insurgents. Consequently, public support for the Afghan government and the international mission has been collapsing.
The Obama administration now seems poised to bet that it's not too late to do in 2009 what we should have done years ago -- pour more troops and more funds into Afghanistan, shift from search-and-destroy tactics to population-protection tactics, boost development spending, and regain the trust of the Afghan people. They may be right about this or they may be wrong. The available data on Afghan public opinion is genuinely ambiguous, especially when you consider the difficulties of doing polls in Afghanistan. I worry that proponents of scaling-up our efforts in Afghanistan are in fact offering too little too late and just don't want to admit that the door has closed on their prescriptions. Even so, it's probably the right bet -- we owe it to the Afghan people to try in good faith to offer security and a start rebuilding their country before we conclude that we need to radically restrict our goals and settle for stand-off airstrikes against high-value terrorist targets. But at the same time, the administration needs to avoid a losing bet that sticks us with a quagmire.
A sound strategy, at this late date, needs to have meaningful benchmarks and policy off-ramps that will let us know if the gamble has failed and we need to change strategies. Despite the smug talk from Iraq hawks turned Afghanistan hawks, there's a very real possibility that the past few years' strategy of senselessly prolonging the war in Iraq has permanently ruined our chances at real success in Afghanistan.