Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, but the debate over the former sure sounds a lot like the debate over the latter. Once again, David Petraeus is overseeing a surge to rescue a failing war effort, and once again a legion of critics isn’t waiting to see if he will succeed. Many are ready to write off initial gains on the ground as “unsustainable” and to argue that the indigenous political class is so weak, corrupt, and self-serving that long-term security is impossible. Instead, those critics urge us to downsize preemptively to a small force focused primarily on hunting down terrorists.
Good thing President Bush didn’t follow that advice in Iraq. If he had, the civil war that was starting to break out in 2006 would have raged out of control, with civilian casualties accelerating and possibly reaching Rwanda-like levels. American commandos would have been incapable of stopping this slide to disaster — just as they have been incapable of ending the chaos in Somalia and curbing the growing power of Islamists there. Or in Pakistan.
Instead, for all its imperfections, Iraq has been remarkably successful in drawing back from the brink of disaster. It’s true that Iraq’s politicos have not solved all or even most of their quarrels, but they have managed to keep their quarrels nonviolent. It’s true that Iraq is still a mess in terms of inadequate infrastructure and overly bureaucratic, ineffective governance, but it’s also one of the freest countries in the Middle East. The Iraqi security forces have matured and taken on much of the burden of defending their country. Terrorist atrocities have continued sporadically, but the situation is infinitely better than it was in 2006 — and infinitely better than if we had aborted the surge prematurely. Iraq’s progress is symbolized by this week’s ratification of a new government and by the letting of oil contracts to foreign companies that promise to unlock vast riches beneath the country’s soil.
Again, Afghanistan isn’t Iraq, and simply because a counterinsurgency strategy worked in Iraq doesn’t mean it will work in Afghanistan. But at the very least, critics should give Petraeus a fair shot to implement his strategy — meaning at least a year — before starting to look for a Plan B. Especially when the most prevalent Plan B — a counterterrorism strategy carried out by a much smaller force — is one we already tried in Afghanistan and found wanting.