Tuesday, October 12, 2004

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Comparing Afghanistan and Iraq

Matthew Yglesias has a list of possible explanations for why, in the wake of Afghanistan's presidential election, "fewer resources have brought better results in Afghanistan than have a much larger quantity of troops and cash in Iraq." He's got a pretty decent list of hypotheses -- greater multilateral involvement, better indigineous political leadership, etc. I'd add two big ones, however:

1) Afghanistan doesn't have any oil. Economies based on extractive resources generate massive opportunities for graft and corruption. They also encourage domestic actors to battle over the distribution of existing resources, rather than focusing on growing the pie for everyone.

A related point: because of that oil wealth, many Iraqis could claim to some middle-class aspirations even during the sanctions era. the threat to those aspirations posed by continuing instability badly undercuts support for the U.S. invasion.

2) Afghanistan was invaded eighteen months before Iraq. There simply hasn't been the same rush to elections in Afghanistan that there has been in Iraq. Even though both countries are dealing with insurgencies, the Taliban's failure to dusrupt the presidential elections suggests that they cannot muster coordinated attacks. This may be due to 18 more months of counterinsurgency operations.

Post your own explanations below.

posted by Dan on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM


The various Afghan warlords got essentially what they wanted - control of local territories, extortion power, and no interference from Kabul. No need to make quite as much trouble as their less-successful counterparts in Iraq.

posted by: wishIwuz2 on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

Afghanistan is strategically important as a land based route for transport of Caspian sea oil to Xinjiang in China. And if Pakistan co-operates to India.

posted by: Amit Kulkarni on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]


A couple of comments:
While I take your point about the potential for corruption resulting from the existence of oil reserves in Iraq I'm not sure about your broader claim here. Didn't the Afghan economy (or, at least, a big chunk of it) rest on the illegal drug trade? This would seem to present at least as many opportunities for corruption.

Now some preliminary thoughts to answer your challenge: I think that the degree of institutionalization of the previous regime mught play into this as well. Specifically, in Afghanistan the Taliban were not in control of the country for particularly long and for much of the time that they were in control they were faced with a reasonably substantial civil war. In such a situation, while the government may have been able to instill fear into the population and establish some form of societal control, the institutional structures of the regime at the local level had not been completed (by which I mean local 'bosses,' village leaders, etc - people who can act as liaisons between the government and the people but also as providers of government largesse/favors to the people at large.)
On the other hand Baathists in Iraq had a long period of relative stability in which to institutionalize all the mundane day-to-day activities of local government under a totalitarian regime. Thus, it seems to me, there are many more individuals in Iraq who are losing out on positions of power/influence/prestige than is the case in Afghanistan. While many (most/all?) of these people probably realize that Saddam is not coming back, they have a vested interest in seeing a return to something like the previous power structure and they certainly don't want the establishment of anything like transparent democratic processes of government.

posted by: Mark on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

One main reason that I think most people don't appreciate fully is ethnic. The Taliban largely drew from a somewhat geographically isolated minority group in Afghanistan/Pakistan. Thats why only the border areas in Afghanistan are seeing problems. The Sunni minority that is the base for most of the problems in Iraq is not geographically as isolated.

Also, the Taliban had really only been in power for a few years, whereas the Baath Party and Saddam had been in power for decades, allowing a far greater grip on power and tentacles stretching all over the country.

Also, Afghani's in general did not have any real reason to dislike the US, and some reason to like it (removal of the Taliban, help when fighting the Soviets).

Iraqis had several reasons to dislike the US (support for Israel, civlian deaths in GW-I, the inaction when Saddam massacred the Shia, suspicion over US being there to steal oil), and only one reason to like the US (removal of Saddam).

Finally, there is one very important factor that is unmentioned. Iran and Pakistan both helped in stabilizing Afghanistan. Without some tacit help from Iran, afghanistam might have been harder to stablize. However, after the axis of evil speech, Iran not only has no reason to help stabilize Iraq, it has every reason to destabilize it. Ditto for Syria.

posted by: erg on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

Afghanistan doesn't have any oil.

Please. Everyone knows that the Afghanistan war was fought for Unocal's Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. [/Chomsky]

posted by: Al on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

Or...the easy answer is terrorists recognize that Iraq is the place where the coalition of the willing could be fractured and so, they are focusing their activities there. And in Iraq the media can focus on negative news in hopes of defeating Bush in November. Which would avail to what it seems those opposing the U.S. in the war on terror want.

posted by: Joel B on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

As far as "resources" go, I remember reading that the roughly $20 billion pledged to Afghanistan was something like four times that country's GDP; any infusion of cash in Afghanistan therefore has a disproportionate "bang for the buck."

(Someone -- i.e., not me -- should check this tidbit, but the logical conclusions follow . . .)

posted by: None on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

A few weeks ago, Michael Carnahan was on campus and said one reason why Afghanistan's might be better off than Iraq is that it had become a low-profile reconstruction job so technocrats could do their work without having to sway with the political winds. Personally, I think you need to add in that Iraq is home to large numbers of educated people with ideological objections to American involvement in the Middle East. Afghanistan simply isn't put together the same way. Furthermore, as noted in the first comment, the warlords got what they wanted, so they don't want to rock the boat.

posted by: Brian Ulrich on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

It is not true that the Taliban drew its support from a geographically isolated minority. The Taliban
was basically a Pashtoon organization, and Pashtoons are a very significant group in Afghanistan. In addition to this, the Pakistan Army has a significant Pashtoon component, and the Taliban managed to stay in power primarily through the Pakistan Army's support. It is a dirty secret that the U.S media chooses to downplay.

The Afghan elections may have been peaceful, but I doubt that they augur well for the future of
Afghanistan. Ethnic divisions in Afghanistan have increased. And to win the election, Mr Karzai has chosen to project himself as a leader of Pashtoons rather than that of all afghans. This is potentially cause for strife, given that the main representatives of other ethnicities have been sidelined by him.

The major reasons for the Afghan elections being peaceful is that it is in the interest of both the U.S and Pakistan to see Mr Karzai in power. Consequently, the "Taliban" has not been particularly disruptive, while Mr Karzai has managed to ally with "moderate" Taliban. It is not
presently in the interest of anyone else either to
see a resumption of conflict in Afghanistan, given that there has been continuous civil war for 22 years before. This, of course, is not the case with Iraq.

posted by: vr on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

Because Iraq was second...

posted by: paul a'barge on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

Afganistan wasn't flodded with political cronies and hacks to allegedly reconstruct the country. What people were involved in reconstruction probably knew what they were doing. In other words, it wasn't micromanaged by the incompetent civilian leadership of the Pentagon.

posted by: Brian on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

Some of the above is, I believe, incorrect. For example, the Taliban derive primarily from the Pashtuns, who comprise a plurality (though probably not a majority) of Afghanistan's population--though Pashtuns are underrepresented in western and northern Afghanistan. Also, I doubt Afghanistan is an especially worthwile path for the Kazakh-China pipeline that Amit Kulkani refers to (Afghanistan's border with China is nearly non-existent, while the border with Kazakhstan is long and more conducive to construction of a pipeline).

In addition to your comments, and those of Mark and Erg, I'd assert that Afghanistan has historically been a locally-focused polity, with senior tribal members meeting in grand councils (loya jirga) to settle the "rules" of interaction between clans, tribes, and ethnic groups and weak (at times non-existent) central control. So there is a history of discussing things and compromising on any given group's goals. The Afghan communists, Soviets, and Taliban never eradicated that model of governance; thus, the loya jirga remained viable as a mechanism for the newly-liberated Afghanistan to work out the "rules of the game" of politics.

Also, given the history of civil war and the fact that most of the fighters on the ground during the Liberation were Afghans, they have more "ownership" of the current situation than the Iraqis do. The Liberation happened because they acted to make it so (with help from America and the West), continuing a long-standing tradition of independent self-reliance and providing motive (and opportunity, given the large amounts of arms available to the anti-Taliban Afghan militias) to defend what had been achieved. Afghanistan also had the advantage of its neighborhood--Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, India, and Iran all worked to undermine the Taliban, and the borders with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan were largely sealed to interposition of opposing forces (that with Iran seems to have been more porous with regard to Al Qaeda leaders, but there is no evidence I'm aware of that significant AQ/Taleban infiltration has occurred into Afghanistan from Iran).

Iraq, which has been under the thumb of dictators or the Ottoman Empire for most of the last several hundred years, has no such tradition of consultative governance. Further, as indicated, Iraqis have more reason (from recent experience) to be suspicious of Western motives. They did not participate in their liberation and thus have no agreed sense that it is "theirs"--it was bestowed upon them by a higher power, just as virtually everything during the Hussayn era was bestowed at the pleasure of the (socialist, if not quasi-Marxist) Baathist government. Further, since the 4th ID was denied the opportunity to strike south from Turkey, substantial elements of the former regime survived the Liberation to fight on, joined by a host of "freelancers" from around the region (entering via Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) and, perhaps, secret service/special forces types from Syria and Iran (which, given the US presence in Afghanistan and outposts in Central Asia, has reasons to feel less secure with a robust US presence in Iraq).

Wow! That was a lot longer than I expected to go..but I hope it triggers some additional thinking on the matter...thanks, Dan, for an interesting topic!

posted by: Jem on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

First of all, voting in meaningless in Afghanistan. Remember, they used to vote in the Soviet Union, too.

Karzai occupies the same position as he did before the elections - he's the mayor of Kabul. His authority extends as far as the city limits, if that far.

The day the international community leaves, Afghanistan will devolve once again into chaos as we did not disarm the war lords nor destroy the Taliban, both of which are more popular in their localities than Karzai.

posted by: Jeff on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

I agree with some of the above, especially on the point about the duration and pervasiveness of the former Iraqi regime. What I would add are two thing present in Afghanistan to a greater extent than they are in Iraq. One is exhaustion. The other is fear.

Afghanistan has been more or less continually at war since I was in college. Many Afghans are likely to accept quite a few things they would not otherwise if they believe there is a chance to prevent a renewal of fighting and chaos. They know what further fighting is likely to gain them; they know which of their internal enemies can be beaten, and which cannot.

In Iraq these are matters of uncertainty. Neither Sunni Arabs nor Shiites have ever been given much cause to think the American army will up and leave them to face each other. Iraqis think what is happening now is the worst that can happen. Afghans, most of them, know better.

I've written before that I don't think we have ever used fear very well as a weapon in Iraq. American public diplomacy has always been targeted narrowly at the domestic audience, dwelling on our resolve, our fight for freedom, and various other noble qualities that Americans understand in a specific context while most Iraqis do not understand them at all. The prospect of disaster, of former regime officials returning to resume oppressing the majority Shiites or Shiite hordes massacring the Sunni minority, is not dwelt on. And this is a grave mistake. No democracy was ever created but by people who feared the alternatives were all much worse.

History has taught the appropriate lessons to the Kurds in Iraq's north all too well. They do not need American propaganda to fear what might happen to them if the Americans leave. Our problem is communicating what history has taught to Kurds to other Iraqis and particularly to the Sunni Arabs -- or would be, if the American government understood its position.

posted by: Zathras on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

What about the symbolic value (in Muslim eyes) of Iraq, particularly Baghdad, the former home of the Calaphite? Afghanastahn isn't as important to the Islamic worldview as Iraq is.

posted by: Geoff Matthews on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

From what I have heard from friends who were working in Afganistan there really is nothing to celebrate about these elections. The place is a mess, but it is a mess in ways that are less apparent than those that make the evening news.

Sure the elections went off reasonably well, but they really have no impact. People in Afganistan (specifically the Warlords) have come to accept that Karzai has no power over them. So what is the harm in electing him to the position he already holds.

Afganistan also has lower standards of success. The place is so backwards it is hard to comprehend. The story I heard that sums it up best was my friend was talking to an Afgani (a government bureaucrat) about how great it was that there were women representing Afganistan in the Olympics. The response was essentially, "yeah its great, but if it was my sister I would have her beaten to death."

The attitudes of Afganis have not changed, and the warlords are still in control. But in the scheme of things I guess this is a relative success in the war on terror. Afganistan was once a place that gave shelter to the worst terrorists, now it is merely a place where life sucks.

The standards of success are much higher in Iraq because the threat was that much less to begin with. We invaded a country that did not attack us, and we now know did not have the means to attack us. Given that, we need to do better to make us safer today.

posted by: Rich on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

Erg, Syria and Iran are not scared of a liberal democracy taking root in Iraq because W included them in the "Axis of Evil". They're scared of a free Iraq because it will undercut and destabilize their despotic regimes. They'd feel (and act) exactly the same way if Bush had grouped them in the "Vanguard of Virtue".

Saudi Arabia is the hidden member of the Axis of Evil and has the same problem with a free Iraq. Notice that they haven't exactly sealed their borders to mujahadeen heading into Iraq to visit misery upon the Iraqi people and die as martyrs?

posted by: Howard Hansen on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

I believe it's because the Bush administration is not really interested in fighting terrorism. W had a personal vendetta against Saddam Hussein and seized the opportunity to carry it out.

After all, if they were serious about fighting terrorism, they would have continued to fight in Afghanistan, which had been the center of terrorist training activity in the world, and the largest source of terrorist funding (the poppy fields).

Then they would have looked to Pakistan, which has a similar Jihadist movement to the Taliban trying to kill the Pakistani president, where a pro-Islamist government waiting in the wings would likely be willing to provide terrorist groups with NUCLEAR weapons. Iran is also a greater terrorist threat than Iraq was.

Indeed, other than the poorly planned and, frankly, ridiculous plan to assassinate GHW, the Iraqis had made no moves against the US outside of Iraqi borders. And it wass apparent when the inspectors were there (and were being allowed to investigate, contrary to Bush's statements) that Iraq had not the capcity to effectively develop any serious threat to the US while under sanctions and blockade.

posted by: flaime on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

To clarify -- when I was referring to the minority group the Taliban drew from, I was not referring to the Pashtun, but to the Arabic groups of Al Qaeda and Bin Laden [ Technically, since they aren't even native Afghans, maybe they should be called outsiders rather than minorities]

'Erg, Syria and Iran are not scared of a liberal democracy taking root in Iraq because W included them in the "Axis of Evil". They're scared of a free Iraq because it will undercut and destabilize their despotic regimes'

Firstly, Syria was not included in the axis of Evil.

Secondly, Iran had helped us to stabilize Afghanistan. A democracy in Afghanistan didnt seem to threaten them, why should one in Iraq, especially since they had influence with most major Shia exile groups, and they knew first hand how hard this would be.

Thirdly, Iran had made some good progress towards democracy. They had a democratic reformist Parliament and President, local democratic institutions etc. Dissidents like Shirin Ebadi did exist (in Iraq, they would have been dead). Of course, the Supreme Jurisprudence has and had most of the power in the state, and there is still support for Hamas and Hezbollah but Iran was making several steps towards democracy.

There is no doubt that Syria and Iran felt threatened by the US -- I just don't think it was by the specter of liberal democracy spreading out from Iraq. I think they were more concerned about neocons plotting attacks on them.

posted by: erg on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

Afghans played a greater role in their own liberation than Iraqis. Kabul fell, due to American bombs, to the Afghan Northern Alliance. The U.S. has been popular among Iraqi Kurds, and this is partly due to the fact that Iraqi Kurds (specifically, the peshmerga fighters) participated in their own liberation.

Afghanistan was never under "occupation" by the U.S. The Loya Jirga was convened pretty early after the regime change. There was never any Coalition Provisional Authority in Afghanistan. There was never an Afghan equivalent of Chairman Paul Bremer, thank God.

The U.S. was viewed with less suspicion in Afghanistan. Iraqis didn't like living under occupation because as President Bush correctly noted, "Nobody likes to be occupied", but also because the U.S. occupation reminded them, as Michael Ignatieff acknowledged, of "another occupation in the area" -- the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Iraqi Arabs are suspicious of the U.S. (unlike most Iraqi Kurds) because almost all Arabs are suspicious of the U.S. As Walter Russell Mead pointed out, Arabs are angry at the U.S. because they have a perception that the U.S. has no sympathy for the Palestinians.

The Pottery Barn analogy was useful, but a little bit wrong: the U.S. had the right to free Iraq, but did not have the right to "own" Iraq. Iraqis ought to "own" Iraq. Paul Bremer's attempt to micromanage political development in Iraq was a mistake from the beginning.

Elections for delegates to an Iraqi Constitutional Convention should have been held 12 months ago instead of 3 months from now. The transfer of power to Iraqis should have been implemented 12 months ago instead of 4 months ago.

posted by: Arjun on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

Another reason:

Iraq had a fiercely centralized government. When we decapitated it, the regional governments were not equipped to step in -- even mentally. In Afghanistan there was a long tradition of warlordism that the Taliban had not effectively broken. This provided mechanisms, however screwy, for accomplishing some of the basic tasks of government, long before Kabul could re-assert authority.

posted by: Shelby on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

In both cases, despotic and evil regimes were removed from power. In the case of Iraq, Saddam had ruled with an ironfist for decades and had stifled dissent. In the case of the Taliban, they never controlled the entire country and were never able to stifle dissent.

What does this mean? Its not 100% clear. My guess is that:

1) In the case of Afghanistan there is little in terms of nationalism. People identify based on tribal or ethnic indentities and have for some time. The US was able to exploit this and use less troops and resources to get rid of the Taliban, which was incapable of ever truly unifying the country. In short, the various ethnic and tribal groups got rid of the one group seeking to impose itself above all others. This group was also tainted by its use of and close ties with Al Qaeda (Arabs/foreigners). The US, through the supply of weapons, goods, and good ole cash, was able to purchase assistance to liberate the country. Thus, we never came across as occupiers. Instead, for most Afghanis, I would wager we come across as far more benign than we do to Iraqis.

2) Second, geography. The mountainous geography of Afghanistan mandated a less is more strategy. History showed plenty of reasons not to go heavy there. In Iraq, history showed the opposite. Desert warfare makes tanks, heavy infantry, and airpower all very effective. In the mountains, it is far less so.

3) Third, expectations. We never claimed to be doing much more than getting rid of the Taliban in our pursuit of Osama in Afghanistan. In Iraq, we were promising democracy, stability, and prosperity from the get go.

posted by: Sean Giovanello on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

The big difference between Afghanistan and Iraq was always the fact that there was a shadow government in place in the former, but not the latter.

Afghanistan had the Loya Jirga structure to tap into, and which could be used to legitimize and delegate authority. There was also the Northern Alliance movement which could be used as a proxy army for much of the fighting, and which allowed for a smaller US presence.

Iraq had none of this. There was no shadow government to speak of, and indeed we had to build one of our own, and it suffered from a lack of credibility and legitimacy. Nor was there a local military that we could rely on (the Kurds were not capable of policing the entire nation, and the regular army was unreliable).

Folks looking for differences should be asking why there wasn't any of that dreaded looting in Afghanistan even though there was a much smaller US troop presence. There's your answer.

posted by: Ursus on 10.12.04 at 02:30 PM [permalink]

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