Democratic Hallucinations in Afghanistan and Iraq

Insular and secretive presidential administrations often deny reality to the point of absurdity when they blunder into foreign misadventures. The classic example is the Johnson administration during the Vietnam War. The Bush administration’s current quagmires in Iraq and even Afghanistan are taking on that air. For example, the administration is congratulating itself on the Afghan legislative and provincial election day passing without rampant strikes by a resurgent Taliban; recent attacks have spiked to the worst levels since that group was removed from power in 2001. In fact, U.S. military sources have already started floating a proposal to pull out some U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Similar talk of a U.S. troop drawdown from Iraq after the December Iraqi elections also has come from the U.S. military.

All this chatter about U.S. troop withdrawal comes at a time of increased Taliban strikes–”which have killed a record number of U.S. troops, seven Afghan electoral candidates, and four campaign workers–”and a wave of insurgent carnage in Iraq that has caused the third largest monthly U.S. military death toll and the worst death count in Baghdad since the U.S. invasion. In Afghanistan, the reduced violence on election day probably indicates that the guerrillas were smart enough to lay low to avoid intensified security measures. The Taliban will likely renew the ferocity of their attacks again shortly. Unfortunately, U.S.-led efforts to stand up Afghan security forces have floundered, and the Bush administration would depend on increasing levels of NATO troops to pick up the slack from any U.S. drawdown. But many NATO countries prefer peacekeeping in secure areas and are unenthusiastic about having their forces actively fight against the Taliban. Similarly, in Iraq, the problems of creating Iraqi security forces to replace any reductions in U.S. troops are well known.

In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the disconnect between talk of troop withdrawal and increased violence can partially be attributed to the U.S. military putting pressure on the Bush administration for relief from its globally overstretched condition. But with next year’s congressional elections in the United States looming, the Republicans would like to show some sort of troop reduction to insulate themselves from Democratic attacks on the issue.

Of course, the short-term goal of reducing U.S. forces exacerbates the administration’s difficulty in achieving its long-term objective in both conflicts: winning. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that if existing force levels of the world’s best army cannot stamp out the Taliban and Iraqi insurgencies, then their partial replacement with inferior forces are unlikely to do so either. The administration’s goal in both conflicts–”if there is a coherent plan at all–”seems to be: buy time until democratic processes dampen the rebellion.

Yet in Afghanistan, the authority of the “democratically-elected” central government of Hamid Karzai is weak in most of the country. The elections are likely to produce a parliament filled with ex-communist commanders, Islamist warlords, and former Taliban leaders–”many with non-democratic tendencies and murderous pasts.

In Iraq, the rancor over the proposed constitution has Sunni Arabs registering in droves to defeat it and will probably end up further inflaming the already intensifying insurgency. As a demonstration of how bad things are, the best outcome for the United States in Iraq might be the constitution’s defeat. If rejection occurred, negotiations among the Kurds, Shi’a, and Sunni Arabs would have to begin again. If the constitution passes over Sunni attempts to derail it, the increased sense of Sunni alienation might very well spark increased levels of violence.

In short, regrettably, neither Afghanistan nor Iraq is yet ready for democracy. Experts on the democratization of countries speak of a democratic culture being required before genuinely democratic institutions and processes can take hold. Afghanistan and Iraq, like South Vietnam in the 1960s and early 1970s, have not developed such a culture.

Other comparisons with the Vietnam War can be made. After first avoiding Vietnam-like body counts of enemy dead, wounded, and captured, the U.S. military is now doing them to demonstrate that it is winning–”at the same time that increasing violence indicates that the opposite is happening. Also, U.S. government pronouncements are being made that are ludicrous on their face. For example, after two days of bombing and shooting attacks attributed to the foreign Islamic jihadists under Abu Musab Zarqawi, which killed a record 190 people, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the senior U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, claimed, “Zarqawi is on the ropes.” This whopper resembles U.S. claims before the 1968 communist Tet Offensive that the United States was winning the Vietnam War. Although the U.S. military defeated the offensive by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, the “credibility gap” exposed by the strength of the offensive was the beginning of the end of U.S. popular support for the war.

Similar U.S. credibility gaps are yawning in both Afghanistan and Iraq at a time when the public at home is already restless about such foreign entanglements and when the Bush administration seems to have no coherent long-term plan to extricate the United States with dignity from such quagmires. To those who lived through the 1960s and early 1970s, the situation is unfortunately all too familiar.