Ten years and two wars after 9/11, it appears that the United States has achieved considerable success in stabilizing Iraq but rather less so in Afghanistan. That this is the case is itself a reflection of the fact that, beginning in late 2002, Washington assigned far greater priority to the quest for containing Saddam Hussein—and, by February of the following year, removing him entirely—than it did toward rebuilding Afghanistan. That ordering of priorities did not change until the last eighteen months of the Bush administration, by which time the Taliban, which had been routed in Afghanistan in 2001-2002, had returned in force. It should not be surprising, therefore, that the 2007 “surge” in Iraq has met with far greater success that its counterpart in Afghanistan, which was initiated two years later, even though General David Petraeus served at the helm of both—in the latter case, taking command in Afghanistan some six months after President Obama announced the second and larger phase of the surge of forces to that country.
Even the permanence of America’s success in Iraq is far from guaranteed. It is not at all clear that Iraq will remain stable once most, if not all, American troops are withdrawn by the end of this year, nor is it certain that Washington can preserve the integrity of the government in Kabul once American forces leave, as scheduled, in 2014. Tensions in Iraq simmer below the surface. Sunnis are fearful that the Shi’a-led government will turn on them in force once the restraining hand of the United States is lifted and that Iran, with more influence in Iraq than it has had in centuries, will further extend its reach into the fabric of the country when the Americans depart for good. Kurds, who have enjoyed a semblance of independence, have no intention of moving even an inch toward the status quo ante that prevailed while Saddam was in power. And Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, the country’s strong-willed leader, is not certain what would empower his Sadrist rivals more: having all American forces leave the country as currently planned or having some number—perhaps three thousand, perhaps more—remain in the country to continue to train Iraq’s security forces.
The situation in Afghanistan, however, makes Iraq look like paradise. The Obama administration advertised as the surge got underway that the Taliban and other insurgent groups were back on their heels and would not be a serious threat by mid-2011. That deadline has come and gone, but the insurgency is still very much a force to be reckoned with despite highly successful drone operations inside neighboring Pakistan that have taken the lives of numerous Taliban operatives and many of its leaders as well. Drug trafficking and corruption continue to be the bane of Afghanistan; insurgents fund their operations both through the drug trade and by shaking down local contractors; warlords retain their local power. Meanwhile reconstruction, the key to a stable Afghanistan, moves in fits and starts. And the American body politic, tired of war, fed up with wasted American resources, may not be willing to wait until 2014 before pressing lawmakers to “bring our boys—and girls—home.”
The legacy of 9/11 has been costly, in terms of resources as well as in terms of lives—of troops, civilians and contractors. The current debt crisis also traces its antecedents to that day. The cost of the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, measured in terms of the cost of the two wars as well as that of domestic security measures and the secondary and tertiary effects of 9/11 itself, has already exceeded a trillion dollars.
Might America have done things differently? Should it do things differently now? The answer to both questions clearly is “yes.” Had Washington provided more than a modicum of funds to Afghanistan in the first years after the attack on al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it is arguable that Afghanistan would be a far more stable place today and that the second American–Afghan War (for that is what it really is) need not have been fought. But that is the past, and we are in Afghanistan today, as we are, at least for some more months, in Iraq. We simply cannot abandon either country.
Washington should continue to press for the retention of a small, but practical, number of troops—three thousand is simply not enough—to remain in Iraq to continue training its forces and, just by being there, to counter deleterious influences, notably those of Iran and the Sadrists. For similar reasons, Washington should ensure that sufficient funding is available to continue training the Afghan security forces after 2014—Kabul simply does not have the money to maintain and sustain the training program. In addition, every effort should be made to contain wasteful spending in that country—which means a thoroughgoing overhaul of the American government’s system for managing and overseeing contractor operations in contingencies—and to pursue reconstruction projects in areas where they are sustainable over the long haul.
This has been a very tough decade for the United States. It has eroded the nation’s morale and sapped its economic strength. But packing up and leaving Iraq and Afghanistan will not resolve our ills. We need to demonstrate our determination to prevail in both those places, even as we seek to revive both our economy and the optimism that has been the hallmark of Americans for more than two centuries.