Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Importance of Following Through

4 years ago ccwa 0

photo_1323587929293-1-0As a child, one of the life lessons my parents taught me was to always finish what you start.  When you start something, you don’t just abandon it halfway through because you find it difficult, or it’s taking longer than you initially imagined. I have internalized this lesson, and try to live up to it to the best of my ability.

This is why the U.S.’ foreign policy decisions in the previous decade strike me as displaying a startling lack of thoroughness, especially in regards to the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan.  It’s almost as though our national leaders never learned the simple life lesson my parents taught me years ago. Unfortunately, their failure to follow through on past foreign policy decisions will have drastic consequences for the nation and for the world.

Many of the external threats and problems facing Americans today are a direct result of the United States failing to follow up in the martial and diplomatic spheres.  The most relevant example of this is, of course, the War in Afghanistan.  On Christmas day, 1979, the armies of the Soviet Union crossed the Afghani border and began a decade long war in Afghanistan. The Communist government of Afghanistan requested Soviet troops to aid them in putting down a popular rebellion by fighters called the Mujahideen.  Soviet and Communist Afghan atrocities were many and varied, ranging from executing civilians to indiscriminate chemical attacks. The United States, Egypt, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and their allies began to funnel weapons, materiel, money, and training to the Mujahideen. Eventually, the Soviet Union withdrew its forces from Afghanistan and, three years later, the Communist government was defeated. As far as American leaders were concerned, the conflict was over and there was no further need for American involvement—a grave miscalculation.

The Soviet War in Afghanistan left the country devastated. The median age for a resident of Afghanistan was 14 years old, the infrastructure and economy were all but nonexistent, and the country was still flush with weapons and equipment left over from the proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although what came next should not have been much of a surprise, our leaders were caught unaware.

The country erupted into civil war, with a whole range of factions vying for control. After some conflict, an extremist Islamist faction known as the Taliban gained control of much of Afghanistan, with the Northern Alliance still holding the north. A radical Islamist terrorist named Osama Bin Laden sought and received protection from the Taliban, giving him a safe location where he could train his operatives and plan attacks. This allowed him and his followers to plan complex and successful attacks such as the USS Cole and Nairobi embassy bombings, and eventually the 9/11 attacks.

Initially, combat operations in Afghanistan taken in response to 9/11 were wildly successful, and American forces seemed to be making progress towards establishing a stable Afghanistan. Then came the 2004 invasion of Iraq.  Attention was shifted away from Afghanistan, allowing the insurgency to quickly regain strength and establish itself in several regions of the country. Yet again, American leadership acted as if Afghanistan was no longer relevant to American foreign policy interests well before it was prepared to stand on its own two feet without extensive international support.

American policy in Iraq has also been a lesson in carelessness. This was evident in all aspects of the occupation but was made particularly clear by the complete ineptitude and willful ignorance of the civilian leadership in planning for a post-invasion Iraq. The surge was implemented in 2007 and was reasonably successful in reining in insurgent activity in Iraq. Shortly after, civilian leadership bowed to popular pressure and withdrew American forces from Iraq before the Iraqi government and military infrastructure were developed enough to successfully combat the insurgency.  As a result, the insurgents were given room to consolidate and regroup, and have returned in full force, even capturing a major city, Fallujah, where scores of US Marines lost their lives in major battles against insurgents in 2004. The Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri Al-Maliki, has now asked the United States to once again send forces to help the Iraqi government defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, which now operates openly in the West of the country. This situation would have never developed if the United States had simply followed through and only withdrew when it was very clear that the Iraqi government could function and defend the people of Iraq from an insurgency.

Counterinsurgency is not a quick process. It takes a lot of time and treasure to rebuild a country, and like most things, it is a process that cannot be rushed. Some may ask why we should take on the responsibility to rebuild these countries, and argue that surely American money and lives would be better spent at home instead of foreign frontiers like Afghanistan or Iraq. But 9/11 showed us exactly why these countries are so important; if you leave a power vacuum, someone will fill it. And that someone is all too often whoever is least confined by morality and humanitarian concerns—an unhappy truth when it comes to the maintenance of stability.

While we must realize that we cannot fix every region of the world, we must also realize that no defense is impregnable. If we allow extremists like al-Qaeda a safe-haven anywhere in the world, it only means that they will inevitably find a way to strike the United States. It is imperative that the US government begin to make national security decisions in a responsible manner that follow through on its previous ones, regardless of whether they were the right ones. Because as history has shown, what happens on the other side of the globe affects what happens here, and a lack of conviction in the present can easily lead to national tragedies in the future.


The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous. 

(photo credit: Stephen Brashear – AFP – Getty Images)