On the Art of Exit: Iraq and Afghanistan

Obama and IraqAs President Obama moves cautiously to wind down the war in Iraq, he will probably leave an ambiguous muddle in a country that he said we never should have attacked. Meanwhile, he has upped the ante in Afghanistan, where he had accused George Bush of failing to follow through on a conflict that was justified by the attacks of 9/11.

However, while upping the ante with thousands of new troops, he has given notice that the commitment is not open-ended: withdrawal is set to begin next year. He appears determined that the wars not overwhelm his domestic agenda, even as, pragmatically, he cannot walk away from either without exposing himself to withering political attacks. If Bush saw himself as a war president, Obama wants to be a reformer with two wars to manage.

The Iraq war was fraudulently sold to the American people. On the other hand, one can make a good case that the war in Afghanistan was a response to a legitimate casus belli: the attacks of 9/11 that were launched from that country by Al-Qaeda. But though the war might be justified, that does not imply that it can be won, or even that we can achieve enough to make it worth the cost.

Both wars involve commitment to a strategy of counterinsurgency. The doctrine of counterinsurgency was developed after World War II, in response to successful guerrilla insurgencies in China, French Indochina, Algeria, and Vietnam. Counterinsurgency theory was based on close study of the writings and practices of Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, and other revolutionary leaders. Its fundamental premise is that an insurgency can only succeed when it is completely integrated with the population. As Mao famously put it, the insurgent must be to the people as the fish is to water.

It follows that the most effective way to counter insurgency, to defeat it, is that the forces of the regime be also as the fish is to water. The regime must beat the insurgents at their own game. It was an elegant theory, but not a very successful one. For one thing, any regime vulnerable to a successful insurgency must inevitably be seriously out of touch with its own population, a fish out of water, as it were. Secondly, counterinsurgency theory was used by France,Britain and the United States to try to bolster just such regimes, such as the colonial orders in Indochina and Algeria, or the postcolonial order in South Vietnam. But how could outsiders ever hope to relate to a population as effectively as native insurgents?

In fact, the list of successful counterinsurgency campaigns, where the rebels had a real chance to take power, is short indeed. The British campaign in Malaya in the late 1940s is commonly cited. American-supported counterinsurgency in El Salvador in the 1980s led finally to a peace settlement and, currently, an elected government run by the former insurgents. There aren’t many other cases of success.

Both Iraq and Afghanistan present similar challenges as these historical cases. Iraq, as the more economically and socially developed society, stands a much better chance of emerging with a viable regime, but one quite unlike what the United States would prefer. What is most likely is an authoritarian or semi-authoritarian ruler drawn from the Shi’a majority, and closely allied to Iran, our bête noire in the region. Such a ruler will derive much of his legitimacy by bashing the United States as the cause of all Iraq’s troubles.


Afghanistan, of course, is the graveyard of invaders from Alexander the Great to the Soviets. Why should we be any different? Either the country will continue in chronic civil war, with local warlords shifting sides according to tactical advantage, and a central government that struggles to control Kabul; or the Taliban will win because they are better organized, more brutal, and better connected in Pakistan than any of their rivals. The United States can, at best, stave off the latter outcome, but only by precisely the kind of open-ended commitment that Obama is desperate to avoid.

Counterinsurgency, with such an open-ended commitment, can prevent an insurgent victory. It is a recipe for endless, inconclusive war. A democracy cannot be successful in such a war, because the people will ultimately stop supporting it. The “Vietnam syndrome” is a synonym for sanity.

John Peeler

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Bucknell University

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