When the Bush administration unveiled the Iraq surge and new war strategy, then Senator Barak Obama opposed the plan, arguing it was bound to fail and increase the violence. He was proven wrong. A few years later, President Obama, faced with a dismal situation in Afghanistan, is trying to copy the same approach, minus the right strategy and necessary catalysts. Although it may take many months before a reliable assessment of success or failure can be made, there is little reason to expect Obama’s plan to meet with the same success of the Iraq surge.
Let’s look at some of the enablers of success in Iraq and compare those with the situation in Afghanistan.
First, differences in the capability, resolve and reliability of local partners matter. In Iraq's case, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki acted as a resolute, if sometimes reckless, partner. He did not shy away from cracking down on terrorists or confronting insurgents — Shiite or Sunni — head-on. The parallel rapid growth in the size and proficiency of Iraqi security forces — which some keen observers called “the real surge” — was also instrumental in turning the tide.
In Afghanistan, the situation is not even remotely similar. President Hamid Karzai not only has been reluctant to support military operations but went as far as threatening to join the Taliban. Moreover, U.S. forces cannot expect from Afghan forces the same level of active participation the Iraqis were able to contribute. Despite having a larger population, Afghanistan’s security forces are a third the size of Iraq’s. Tough terrain and more scattered population centers further complicate counterinsurgency operations by the smaller combined U.S.-Afghan force.
Second, different operational strategies and stricter rules of engagement represent another challenge to troops in Afghanistan. While both surge plans emphasized protecting the civilian population, the strategy in Iraq also emphasized taking the fight to the enemy. An important part of the strategy was sending troops out of large bases to fight their way into neighborhoods where they established combat outposts from which they could protect civilians and proactively tackle the enemy at the same time, which they did. Troops in Afghanistan do not have the same freedom of action. The rules in Iraq offered troops more flexibility in force employment, allowing them to take timely decisive action against the enemy. In Afghanistan it is common to hear troops complain how the new rules of engagement can allow enemy fighters to escape, and occasionally put the troops in danger. This was not the case in Iraq.
Third, the relationships between the population, terrorists and government were different in Iraq than in Afghanistan. Afghans, while not necessarily fond of the Taliban actions, do not seem to see huge differences between Taliban and government control. In fact sometimes they prefer the former as the Taliban can be better at governance and creating working relations with the population, largely because the government is so incompetent and corrupt.
In Iraq the situation was different. Terrorists alienated the population with their brutality, while the government and U.S. forces offered brighter and more viable alternatives. By the time the surge started, Awakening tribes were already chasing down al-Qaeda.
The Iraq surge had the right enablers, but also clear and suitable political and military goals—to protect the population, defeat the irreconcilable, and offer the reconcilable a chance to find political solutions. Obama sent the additional troops, and the generals wrote great counterinsurgency manuals, but a comprehensive strategy based on the needs and assets on the ground does not seem to exist yet.