Afghanistan increasingly looks like Iraq

AFGHANISTAN is not Iraq, US officials have been fond of saying from the first days of Barack Obama's presidency. The difference, they said, was that one war Obama inherited, in Afghanistan, was worth fighting while the other, in Iraq, was best ended as quickly as possible. Now, Afghanistan has turned into Iraq: an inconclusive slog in which the United States cannot always tell enemy from friend. And like Iraq, Obama has concluded that Afghanistan is best put to rest. Just as he patterned his troop "surge" in Afghanistan on a successful military strategy in Iraq, now Obama is patterning his withdrawal from Afghanistan on the Iraq template as well. Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday that NATO forces would hand over the lead combat role to Afghanistan forces next year as the US and its allies aim to get out by the end of 2014. It's a gradual step away from the front lines, while pushing indigenous forces to take greater and greater responsibility. It's also a gradual lowering of expectations for a country whose internal divisions and customs bewildered the Americans sent to help and where the US national security goals were often poorly understood. "Why is it that poll numbers indicate people are interested in ending the war in Afghanistan?" a contemplative Obama asked during a Rose Garden news conference Wednesday. "It's because we've been there for 10 years, and people get weary." Obama and Cameron stressed that they will not walk out on Afghanistan, whose uneven military is not up to the task of defending the entire country. But Obama in particular seemed keen to show he does not have a tin ear. Afghanistan is Obama's war -- the one he willingly expanded and redefined as a frontal assault on al-Qaida -- but like Iraq for former President George W Bush, the Afghanistan war is becoming political baggage. Americans have little enthusiasm for the Afghanistan mission in this election year, and a string of violent or distasteful incidents involving US forces have refocused national attention on whether the war is achieving its goals. The resentment and contempt each side feels for the other appears to have reached some breaking point in Afghanistan, with a rising number of killings of American troops by Afghan recruits this year. The relationship was far from perfect in Iraq, but fratricide was rare by comparison. Six in 10 Americans see the war as not worth its costs, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released Sunday but conducted before news emerged of a massacre of Afghan civilians, apparently by a US soldier. Just 35 per cent said the war has been worthwhile. More Americans have opposed the war than supported it for nearly two years, but the implications are stark eight months before the presidential election. Opposition to the war is bipartisan, and for the first time the Post-ABC poll showed more Republicans "strongly" see the war as not worth fighting than say the opposite. "When I came into office there has been drift in the Afghanistan strategy, in part because we had spent a lot of time focusing on Iraq instead," Obama said, a bit defensively. "Over the past three years we have refocused attention on getting Afghanistan right. Would my preference had been that we started some of that earlier? Absolutely. But that's not the cards that were dealt." He claimed his strategy has brought the war around the corner. He was careful not to predict victory, or use any of the traditional language of war. "We're making progress, and I believe that we're going to be able to make our -- achieve our objectives in 2014," he said. In the same poll, a majority of Americans said they think a majority of Afghans are opposed to what the NATO-led mission is trying to accomplish in their country. A majority also said the United States should withdraw troops even before the Afghan army is able to stand on its own. Obama used Cameron's visit to endorse a shift toward a back-seat advisory role for US forces in Afghanistan next year, although the war will go on for another year or more. That follows the model of Iraq in 2010, when US forces symbolically pulled back and placed their Iraqi hosts in charge. He said any sudden drawdown of US forces is unlikely in Afghanistan. If he follows the Iraq model, the reduction will be steady and permanent, and taken with an absence of fanfare. The United States has roughly 90,000 troops in Afghanistan. Obama plans to drop that number to 68,000 by late September but has offered no specific withdrawal plan after that. Britain has the second-largest force in Afghanistan with about 9,500 troops. Britain is pulling about 500 troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2012, leaving around 9,000 personnel. Cameron emphasised the scaling back of ambitions since 2001, acknowledging "we will not build a perfect Afghanistan" by the time international forces withdraw from the country. He said Britain and the US were now "in the final phases of our military mission", but -- like Obama -- did not suggest the timetable for British troops to withdraw would be accelerated. By Anne Gearan, AP National Security Writer.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment