Without American Help, Will Afghanistan Be The Next Iraq?

This week, word came that the Obama Administration is moving ahead with contingency plans in case it doesn’t get a basing agreement in Afghanistan and has to pull out all US forces, leaving no residual trainers and advisors.
Sure, this is sensible. After all, it never hurts to plan, even for things that might not happen.
But unfortunately it’s not just prudent planning.  It’s also a signal that the Obama Administration is perfectly prepared to cut loose a country that has sucked up north of $500 billion and cost more than 2,300 American lives.  And that should concern us not just because of the waste, but because it can affect us down the line, too.
At issue?  A basing agreement.
An orderly drawdown requires a security agreement with the host country.  No agreement, no advisors.  Which is a problem.
Iraq was the last place the Obama Administration failed to get a basing agreement and pulled everyone out, leaving the host country without long-term military advisors. Three weeks ago al Qaeda-connected groups had largely taken over the main population centers of western Iraq, Fallujah and Ramadi, and they are still there.
The insurgents moved into Anbar Province and kicked out the Iraqi army, which was starved of expertise and advice.  The army has only managed to get back in by persuading the tribes in the area to support the government and help out, thereby replicating a deal the Americans made with the tribes back in 2006.
Having seen Anbar Province plenty of times, not only when was bad but also after it got better, I can firmly assert that it’s a lot easier to keep insurgents out than to dislodge them once they get in.
The Iraqi army was starved of advice and support because we didn’t have the 10,000 or so US trainers there that would have made a world of difference. Instead we now have a gigantic but mostly empty embassy in downtown Baghdad, which cost a little shy of a billion dollars.
So now we are faced with the same dilemma in Afghanistan.  Without a basing agreement, no US advisors will stay.
It should theoretically be reasonably straightforward to get a basing agreement.  That’s because ultimately the agreement boils down to a single provision:  America won’t let its soldiers, if they happen to kill someone in the line of duty, be put on trial by the host country.  We’ll try them at home, but they won’t rot in some jail cell in Baghdad or Kabul.
This system is in place now and it works. A number of US service members are now in US prisons for violating the rules of war in Iraq or Afghanistan, after having trials here at home.  (These agreements have other provisions, but this is the one that really matters to America).
So if that’s what it comes down to, why can’t we get the deal done?  Just get the agreement signed and keep the advisors there to make sure we don’t get a Taliban repeat of the Iraq problem.
Unfortunately the administration is making heavy weather of this task.  Certainly the local leaders are frustrating to work with.  President Hamid Karzai, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki before him, repeatedly change their minds and demand extra provisions at the last minute. (For instance, Karzai recently responded to civilian casualties in Parwan Province allegedly caused by US Special Forces by requiring that any agreement ban S.F. from entering Afghan homes, something the US military finds onerous).
But these extras are all negotiable to a large extent. Any US official intent on doing a deal would find a way to do it. For instance, I would suggest that an extra $500 million pledged to rebuild villages would shift the thinking of a lot of Karzai’s advisors’ on the “problem” of the basing agreement.  And Karzai listens to his advisors.
Unfortunately, the Obama Administration spends as much time harping on the way Karzai changes his terms and conditions as it does trying to work with him to find a solution.  Instead of inspired diplomacy, we see the Obama Administration stubbornly sticking to its guns, accusing Karzai of dealing in bad faith and then turning toward Plan B – leaving no US soldiers in country to advise the insufficiently-equipped Afghan National Army.
The Iraqi army is years ahead of the Afghans and al Qaeda still came back when American help was lacking. Imagine what will happen in Afghanistan without it.  It won’t take six years, either.
A major issue, I suspect is that the Obama administration is not taking the problem as seriously as it should.  President Obama wants to get out of Afghanistan as he did Iraq.  To him the worst case scenario – no US troops left to help the local security forces – is still a win, because we will have left.  Campaign promise fulfilled.
Also, he doesn’t consider the threat of insurgents to be very significant for America.  Tellingly, Obama’s response to al Qaeda-affiliated groups taking back western Iraq was quoted in the New Yorker magazine thus:
“‘The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,’ Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy.”  He also added the groups were a symptom of sectarian strife in Iraq, rather than the kind of threat we faced from al Qaeda before.
But the reality on the ground is different and much more grave.
Western Iraq in insurgent hands destabilizes the entire country and Syria too.  And allowing Afghanistan to fall into insurgent hands puts us back to square one, 2001.
The Obama Administration has been slow to realize that failing to get a basing agreement isn’t just an Afghan problem.  And it’s not just a mark on our scorecard of wins and losses in war, either.
Getting this wrong could easily affect all of us, yet again.

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