Foreign Policy Essay

The Foreign Policy Essay: Iraq’s Lessons for Afghanistan

By Seth G. Jones
Sunday, August 3, 2014, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The chaos in Iraq has intensified since U.S. forces withdrew at the end of 2011, leading many to question the wisdom of that decision. Although the clock cannot be rolled back—and some see the strife as proof that the United States is best off getting out of the region altogether—the latest crisis in Iraq has raised questions about how to handle the end of the other major U.S. intervention since 9/11: Afghanistan. Seth G. Jones, director of RAND’s International Security and Defense Policy Center and a noted expert on the Afghanistan conflict, offers his thoughts on what the Iraq experience should teach us and what we can do to prevent the same thing from happening in Afghanistan.


The extraordinary advances of Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq this summer, led by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), were impressive for their blitzkrieg-like speed and ruthless precision. Equally remarkable was the precipitous collapse of Iraqi security units in cities like Mosul, less than three years after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

During the fighting in Tikrit in July, ISIS moved hundreds of fighters and military vehicles from entrenched positions in Syria and Iraq to reinforce the city. ISIS also effectively utilized anti-aircraft artillery to repel aerial attacks, cut roads to disrupt Iraqi forces, and targeted advancing troops with improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.

Seth Jones photo with borderThe result was a stunning turnaround for ISIS. From 2006 to 2011, its predecessor organization, al Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI), was uprooted from sanctuaries in Al Anbar and other provinces following Iraqi and U.S. offensive operations. These actions, along with the Sunni Awakening, undermined AQI’s support base and decimated its leadership.

Today, however, ISIS controls key territory in western and northern Iraq, along with portions of eastern Syria. And it operates much like a state in some areas it controls. ISIS has provided water, electricity, oil, and telephone services in eastern Syria. In Mosul, it has set up a salaried police force, freed prisoners, and provided limited water and electricity to some areas.

It may be difficult for ISIS to continue holding all the territory it currently controls, in part because its harsh treatment of residents and destruction of local shrines and landmarks already appear to be causing resentment among some Sunnis. But even if ISIS loses most of the territory it now controls, its actions have exacerbated Sunni-Shi’a friction, increased Iran’s role in Iraq, and further encouraged Kurdish independence.

The successes of ISIS and other Sunni groups have raised important questions about the wisdom of America’s decision to withdraw U.S. military forces in 2011. And they raise equally significant questions about the U.S. decision to exit Afghanistan in the future. Only a few weeks before ISIS began its blitzkrieg into western and northern Iraq, U.S. President Barack Obama announced he would be withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 and that all U.S. forces would be gone by 2016. “We’re finishing the job we started,” Obama proclaimed. “America’s combat mission will be over by the end of this year … We will no longer patrol Afghan cities or towns, mountains or valleys. That is a task for the Afghan people.”

Iraq and Afghanistan are, of course, different countries. They have distinct cultures, political systems, histories of conflict, and meddling by neighboring countries. But there are broad lessons from Iraq that U.S. policymakers need to consider as the United States withdraws forces from Afghanistan.

First, much like in Iraq, there are substantial challenges with Afghan army, police, and intelligence forces. Competent security forces are essential for any state to survive. Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan National Police (ANP) forces are almost certainly less competent than their Iraqi counterparts—yet they face a more formidable enemy.

To be sure, Afghan forces have come a long way since the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban regime. In July 2014, Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), led by the ANA’s 215th Corps, performed admirably in recapturing key territory in northern Helmand that the Taliban had taken a month before. They were aided by specialized Afghan units, such as Afghan Special Forces, Afghan Border Police, Afghan National Civil Order Police, and ANA strike forces.

But the ANSF is still a mixed bag. In southwestern Afghanistan, ANA and ANP units face deficits in supplies and equipment, high attrition rates, and lackluster inter-service cooperation. More broadly, the ANSF will have to deal with substantial financial shortfalls in the near future. In 2015, Afghanistan is expected to cover only $500 million of the ANSF’s budget of over $5 billion. Donor funding, which constitutes roughly 60 percent of Afghanistan’s entire national budget, will likely decrease as U.S. and NATO forces leave Afghanistan. The ANA has already cut soldiers’ net compensation by about one third in 2014. So in many ways the ANSF look in worse shape than Iraqi security forces did before the ISIS offensive.

Second, many of the key drivers of insurgency still exist in Afghanistan—though they differ from those in Iraq, where Sunnis became increasingly disenchanted with the pro-Shi’a policies of the Maliki regime. Afghanistan boasts a culture of patronage and one of the highest corruption rates in the world, which has alienated many Afghans from the government. The heavily-contested 2014 presidential campaign may also exacerbate fissures within the country, including among northern and central populations that supported Abdullah Abdullah and those eastern and southern populations that supported Ashraf Ghani.

In addition, aid from neighboring states is a key variable. ISIS capitalized on its safe havens in eastern Syria to plan and execute operations in Iraq. In Afghanistan, insurgent groups enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan and support from Pakistan’s intelligence service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), including lethal and non-lethal aid.

The Taliban also has access to substantial resources, including the drug trade. Poppy cultivation declined between 2007 and 2011, but increased to 180,000 hectares in 2012 and 198,000 hectares in 2013. Poppy was particularly prevalent in southwestern Afghanistan and some eastern provinces like Nangarhar, and is an important source of revenue for Taliban senior leaders and local insurgent commanders.

Third, Afghan insurgent groups are probably better organized than their Iraqi counterparts, which are divided among a range of groups such as ISIS, Jaysh al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN), former Ba’athist leaders, the Islamic Army of Iraq, and others. The Taliban retains a fairly efficient command-and-control structure, headquartered in Pakistan. At the top is the inner shura (consultative council), which is divided into committees that oversee finance, military operations, propaganda, religious affairs, and other tasks. Below the inner shura are three regional shuras—in Peshawar, North Waziristan, and Quetta—whose job is to coordinate operations in nearby Afghan provinces. Below the regional shuras, the Taliban’s leadership has appointed shadow provincial and district governors, along with military commanders, to run the insurgency.

So far this year, the Taliban has temporarily overrun three district centers, where Afghan government officials are headquartered. They include Yamgan District in Badakhshan Province, Dasht-e Archi District in Kunduz Province, and Jurm District in Badakhshan Province. In each of these cases, the Taliban mounted large offensive operations.

Other district centers have been threatened. In May 2014, Afghan forces had to conduct a major operation in Now Bahar, Zabul Province, to prevent the district center from being overrun. The Taliban has also made advances in Uruzgan, Kapisa, Nangarhar, Daykundi, and other provinces following the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Yet the Taliban does not appear to be on the verge of overrunning major cities, as ISIS and its allies did in Iraq. The presence of U.S. special operations forces and air power in Afghanistan has likely deterred Taliban leaders from massing their forces, which they would need to do to seize and hold a major city. Still, Taliban leaders appear to be emboldened about their prospects of winning with the withdrawal of U.S. and other NATO forces.

Despite the differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, there is one important similarity: precipitously withdrawing U.S. military forces is likely to be destabilizing. To prevent a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the United States should retain special operations forces after 2016 to conduct counterterrorism operations and train, advise, and assist Afghan national and local forces. Particular attention should be devoted to addressing the ANSF’s weaknesses in such areas as intelligence collection and logistics.

U.S. support should not be open ended, but should be conditions based. Continuing U.S. support is possible at a reasonable cost to the United States and Afghanistan’s other foreign donors, so long as Afghan leaders continue to enhance the capabilities of the ANSF, take steps to improve governance, and reach a bilateral security agreement with Washington. The United States should also continue to assess the state of al Qa’ida and associated terrorist groups. If al Qa’ida were to lose its sanctuary in the region and were thus unable to strike the United States, there would be little strategic rationale to keep U.S. military forces in Afghanistan.

For the moment, however, the United States has important national interests in Afghanistan and South Asia. Al Qa’ida’s global leadership is still located along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, though it has been weakened by persistent U.S. strikes. A civil war or successful Taliban-led insurgency would likely allow al Qa’ida and other terrorist groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network, and Lashkar-e-Taiba to increase their presence in Afghanistan. Most of these groups have already expanded their presence in Afghanistan over the past several years.

A burgeoning war would likely increase regional instability as India, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia support a mix of Afghan central government forces, sub-state militias, and insurgent groups. Pakistan, in particular, would likely experience increased violence and refugee flows if the war in Afghanistan were to spill over its border, as it did in the 1980s and 1990s.

A complete U.S. military departure from Afghanistan—if it does happen—could foster a perception among some countries and organizations, however misplaced, that the United States is not a reliable ally. Al Qa’ida and associated movements would likely view a withdrawal of U.S. military forces as their most important victory since the departure of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989.

This future is not set. The United States has made an enormous expenditure of blood and treasure in Afghanistan since 9/11. Though not readily apparent to an American public weary of more than a decade of fighting, important economic, education, health, and other gains have nevertheless been achieved in Afghanistan.

But a U.S. decision to leave Afghanistan would increase the likelihood of an al Qa’ida resurgence, regional instability, and a deterioration of human (including women’s) rights. It is a lesson the United States should have learned over two decades ago when it cut off aid to Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal—an era followed by the rise of the Taliban and its al Qa’ida allies. It is also a lesson that the United States should now have learned after its departure from Iraq after 2011.


Seth G. Jones is director of the RAND Corporation’s International Security and Defense Policy Center and author of In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan. He previously served as a plans officer and senior advisor to the Commanding General of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan.