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Afghanistan and Iraq: It's all the same fight

Although Bush's critics see `good' and `bad' wars, we are battling one enemy.

September 28, 2006|Rich Lowry and David B. Rivkin Jr. | RICH LOWRY is the editor of National Review. DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. is a Washington-based lawyer who served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

TO CRITICS of the Bush administration, the war in Afghanistan is the "good" counterinsurgency. Their calls for troop reductions or a timetable to end the "bad war" in Iraq are matched by demands for more resources and perseverance in Afghanistan. However, this preference is senseless, driven either by sentimentality or partisanship. There is no sound strategic reason to favor the Afghan war over the war in Iraq. In fact, the fates of Baghdad and Kabul are intertwined.

The two wars began differently, of course. The Afghan war has always been much less controversial. No one has ever denied that the Taliban's harboring of Al Qaeda was a legitimate casus belli. The Iraq war had much more opposition from the beginning, and one of its chief rationales -- that Saddam Hussein was harboring stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction -- seemed to collapse after the U.S. invasion. But if you put aside how the wars began -- and we realize that many opponents of the Iraq war will never be able to do that -- there is little to differentiate them.

In Iraq, we face a vicious insurgency that will take years to defeat; the same is true in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the insurgency is made more difficult by the overlay of sectarian violence (Sunni versus Shiite); the same is true in Afghanistan (Pashtun versus everyone else). In Iraq, the insurgents are aided by infiltration from neighboring countries (Syria, Iran); the same is true in Afghanistan (Pakistan). In both countries we are trying to rebuild the army and the police -- with fitful progress -- and fostering a fragile central government whose writ doesn't seem to extend very far across the country.

Of course, at least today, the difficulties in the two countries are not of equal severity. In Iraq, the violence is worse, American casualties are much higher and the capital city -- the center of gravity of the country -- is besieged by insurgents and murderous sectarians. Compared to that, Afghanistan is doing quite well. But it has deep problems of its own, namely the risk that it will become a lawless narco-state.

Pessimists about Iraq say the country is in the midst of a civil war. By most definitions, it certainly is, but this needn't be a cause for utter despair. Indeed, in Afghanistan, the U.S. success in driving out the Taliban regime was greatly aided by the fact that the country was in the midst of a civil war and that we allied ourselves with one side. Likewise, there is no reason that the U.S. cannot successfully navigate the shoals of communal violence in Iraq, which pits not just the Shiites against the Sunnis but features major -- and exploitable -- splits within the Shiite leadership.

The most important similarity between the Iraq and Afghan wars is that in both we are fighting Al Qaeda. Leaving aside the issue of how and when Al Qaeda came to be in Iraq, it is there now, and it considers Iraq a central battlefield. What we are fighting to prevent in Iraq -- a country, or a chunk of it, established as a terrorist base -- is exactly what we fought to destroy in Afghanistan immediately after 9/11 and are fighting to prevent from reemerging there now.

Insurgents in both countries share the jihadi battle against the U.S., and tactics such as the use of improvised explosive devices and suicide car-bombings have migrated from Iraq to Afghanistan. The killing this week in Basra of Omar Faruq, a senior Al Qaeda leader of Iraqi decent who escaped last year from a U.S. detention facility in Afghanistan, further underscores the connection between the two insurgencies.

At the strategic level, the more Iraqi insurgents seem to be succeeding, the more emboldened insurgents in Afghanistan become. As the just-declassified portions of the National Intelligence Estimate put it, "perceived jihadist success [in Iraq] would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere." Their belief that the U.S. is a "weak horse" lacking the will for a long fight would be validated.

The costs of the Iraq war are higher to the U.S. in terms of blood and treasure. But the stakes are higher as well. If the terrorists capture Iraq, they will win a country much more strategically located than Afghanistan, and they will control the world's fourth-biggest oil reserves.

There is no doubt, as the intelligence estimate noted, that the Iraq war is a recruiting tool for terrorists. But Iraq war opponents should not fool themselves; so are Afghanistan and dozens of other Muslim grievances, from our support for Israel to Russia's campaign in Chechnya to the publication of cartoons of Muhammad in Danish newspapers. In the view of jihadis, both the Iraq and Afghan wars are Western assaults on Islam. The recently arrested suspects in the London airplane bombing plot cited both wars as stoking their rage.

There is no good reason to favor the Afghan war over the Iraq war. The Afghan war was launched in a brief period of national unity, while the Iraq war helped stoke our current period of political enmity. But one war will not be won without the other.

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