Thursday, August 28, 2014
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The Endgames in Iraq and Afghanistan

NEW YORK – For nearly a decade, American foreign policy has been dominated by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As 2011 begins, with 50,000 US soldiers still in Iraq and another 100,000 in Afghanistan, it may not look like that era is coming to an end. But it is.

Iraq, the second most expensive “war of choice” (after Vietnam) in American history, is for the United States reaching a level of effort that will no longer absorb substantial military and economic resources or garner significant domestic political attention. All US troops are due to leave Iraq by the end of 2011. 

Even if, as seems likely, several thousand soldiers remain, the number will be small and their role limited to advising and training Iraqi military and police forces and conducting missions against terrorists. Eight years, 4,300 lost American lives, and more than a trillion dollars later, it will be, for better or worse, mostly Iraqis who determine their country’s future.

The initial performance of an Iraq run by Iraqis is less than encouraging. To be sure, there have been a number of relatively fair elections, political life is active, and the economy is growing. But Iraqi leaders’ difficulty in forming a government following last spring’s elections bodes poorly.

Indeed, a political culture of compromise has not taken root, and the country continues to be divided by geography, ethnicity, religion, and politics. There is no consensus on how to share the potential wealth from Iraq’s vast energy resources. The Kurdish north is largely autonomous; where its writ ends and the central government’s begins is unsettled. Iranian influence is pervasive in the south and extensive in the center.

Moreover, the country still experiences regular bombings, and millions of Iraqis are either internally displaced or refugees. In short, conditions in Iraq, while significantly better than five years ago, are more likely to deteriorate than improve.

Afghanistan is moving at a much slower pace when it comes to US troop reductions. The Obama administration is likely to remove a small number of US soldiers in July, the date selected by the president for the beginning of the American military drawdown. But it will be only the beginning of an extended, gradual process of American military reduction, one that looks like it will take four years – and quite possibly longer.

What the US will have to show then for more than a decade of sacrifice and investment in Afghanistan is anybody’s guess. The sum total of the US effort in terms of American money and lives will likely be less than in Iraq, but still substantial.

And it is difficult to be optimistic about Afghanistan, given the Taliban’s resilience, the weakness and corruption that plague the government, and the reality that Pakistan will continue to be a sanctuary for the Taliban and other armed groups seeking to gain a foothold (or more) in Afghanistan. An Afghanistan that resembles a normal country is virtually impossible to foresee.

Nevertheless, the decisions to scale back American involvement decisively in Iraq, and gradually in Afghanistan, will ultimately have significant consequences for the US – many of them welcome. One is financial. Current US policy toward Iraq and Afghanistan costs roughly $150 billion per year, which is more than 20% of total US defense spending. Cutting this sum will free up much-needed money for other defense needs and for deficit reduction, arguably the principal national security challenge facing the US.

Troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan will also allow the US military to begin to recover from these two conflicts. Neither soldiers nor equipment can sustain the performance that has been demanded of them. Recruitment and retention of highly skilled individuals in the US armed forces will increase as the level of effort in the two conflicts winds down, and a great deal of deferred military modernization will occur.  

More fundamentally, reducing US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan will permit a rebalancing of US foreign and defense policy. The two conflicts have absorbed a disproportionate share of the country’s resources – military and economic to be sure, but also the time and attention of policymakers and diplomats.

In the short run, doing less in Iraq and Afghanistan will allow the US to concentrate on the two most immediate external threats to US interests: Iran and North Korea. In the long run, the US needs to generate domestic and international support for regional and global arrangements designed to manage the defining problems of this era, from the spread of nuclear materials and terrorism to maintaining an open world economy and slowing climate change. This will require a foreign policy that focuses on the emerging powers of the twenty-first century, many of which are in Asia.   

The US largely squandered the opportunity to shape the international system in the first decade of the new century. Iraq and Afghanistan proved to be strategic distractions, and,  particularly in Afghanistan, the US should resist pressures to prolong a substantial military presence.

There is now an opportunity to reorient American foreign policy to concentrate on what matters most. It is in the interest of the US and the world that this opportunity not be missed.

Read more from our "Ten Years in Iraq" Focal Point.

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