I’ve been doing some thinking in preparation for my debate tomorrow night with Mark Jacobson hosted by the Pell Center at Salve Regina University. We’ll be talking Afghanistan policy, mostly looking forward, but it is hard to discuss where we are going without considering where we’ve been.
Anyway, it has become a truism that the Bush Administration blundered badly in Iraq when it assumed (wished?) we’d be greeted as liberators in 2003. Instead of a grateful, helpful, eager population, we found the Iraqis, instead, to be resentful, focused on avenging past grievances, and generally non-cooperative. I think most people now see this as unsurprising, and our failure to plan accordingly a cause of much avoidable heartache.
In 2009, we dramatically expanded our presence in Afghanistan on the assumption that we could, in short order, establish security in the country, promote self-sustaining development, establish competent security forces, and stabilize and legitimize existing political institutions. As it turns out, none of this has worked out quite as planned. There was more violence in 2009 than in 2008, more in 2010 than 2009, more in 2011 than in 2010. The first quarter of 2012 was better than the first quarter of 2011, but only back to the 2010 level, and still higher even peak levels in 2008-9. So maybe we’re finally seeing a downturn, but I think that is a premature conclusion. There are increasing doubts about the effectiveness of development initiatives. And well, as Joshua Foust ably demonstrates, evidence on security forces and legitimacy is decidedly mixed or lacking.
I would argue that these outcomes in Afghanistan are unsurprising.
So I guess my question is, which set of assumptions was more (un)likely a priori? The assumption of being greeted as liberators? Or the assumption that we could somehow transform a poor, war-torn country into a nation able to essentially fend for itself against a well-established insurgency?
I don’t have a firm answer, but I have to say that simply by virtue of their scope, the 2009 assumptions were even more unlikely than the 2003 ones. In 2003, the Bush admin was essentially hoping that the Iraqi state could be decapitated, but that it would otherwise continue to function according to the status quo. The Obama admin, instead, was banking on being able to induce a pretty major transformation of Afghan society under fire.
Now, I am not saying the Obama decision was worse. Bush had the option of doing nothing, i.e. not invading Iraq. Obama was faced with a war in progress, so I think it is fair to cut him a little slack there. But purely on the basis of key assumptions, the 2009 surge was easily as badly reasoned as was the invasion of Iraq.