Afghanistan Is Not Iraq

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Germany the first weekend in February, expressed concern about what he was hearing in capitals across Europe. “I worry that for many Europeans the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan are confused,” Gates said. “Many of them, I think, have a problem with our involvement in Iraq and project that to Afghanistan.”

For his part, U.S. President George W. Bush expresses no confusion on the matter. Regardless of the consequences, the president continues to insist that Iraq and Afghanistan are the same war. Both countries, he said most recently in a speech in early February, “are part of the war on terror. These aren’t separate wars. They’re part of the same war.”

From this faulty premise, misguided strategic thinking and misallocated budgets flow, inevitably leading to flawed military deployment and decision-making in both conflicts. Conflating Iraq and Afghanistan results in the Bush administration’s misdiagnoses of each country’s unique challenges, and over-inflates the role of al-Qaida in each theater. Furthermore, not only does it undermine European support for the NATO mission in Afghanistan, but it means that when Congress tries to change the administration’s failed strategy in Iraq, it must also hold up desperately needed funding for Afghanistan.

Bush’s Defense Department budget request this coming fiscal year is a clear case in point. By bundling together $70 billion for these two conflicts—on top of the nearly $550 billion base budget for the DoD — he demonstrates just how damaging conservatives’ repeated “war on terror” rhetoric is to our national security. The differences between these two wars are so great that it makes no sense for the U.S. government to continue planning and budgeting for Iraq and Afghanistan as if they are one conflict.

Let’s begin with Afghanistan. The NATO-supported mission there should be all about building a stable, secure state that denies sanctuary to al-Qaida and its allies. That’s achievable, and here’s why.

First, Afghanistan has a democratically elected government supported by the majority of its population and across ethnic lines. A public opinion poll from October 2007 found that a majority of the Afghan population supported President Hamid Karzai and believed the government was doing a good job.

While the Karzai government faces serious problems with corruption as it builds new governing institutions from the ground up, Kabul and the international community boast a consensus plan for sustained reconstruction and development, embodied in the Afghanistan Compact, alongside a functioning parliament that is beginning to serve as a counterbalance to executive power.

Second, the United States is not bearing the burden alone in Afghanistan. Despite strains in the alliance, 39 countries are contributing to the NATO-International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. Furthermore, international organizations such as the World Bank and the United Nations are involved in strengthening and rebuilding the country. Other countries, such as Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, are engaged in heavy combat, sacrificing their troops for a mission launched to seek out and destroy those responsible for the attacks on 9/11.

Finally, a majority of the Afghan people support U.S. and allied forces in their country. Few support the Taliban-led insurgency. According to the October poll, 60 percent of Afghans polled saw the foreign presence in their country as positive and 73 percent view the Taliban unfavorably. Compare this with Iraq, where more than 80 percent of Iraqi respondents said they “strongly oppose” the presence of foreign troops in their country, and 57 percent of Iraqis believe it is acceptable to attack coalition forces.

Iraq, of course, is a stew of simmering civil wars kept off the boil only by a 130,000-strong U.S. military presence that isn’t large enough to pacify the country but is visible enough to be a daily target.Whatever one’s view of the war in Iraq, the strategic challenges are demonstrably different.

Political support in the United States and abroad for the allied mission in Afghanistan should not be poisoned by failures in Iraq. Afghanistan and Iraq need to be separated, seen as two distinct challenges and funded independently. Rational policy-making requires a pragmatic consideration of costs, benefits and strategic prospects. This cannot begin while the administration continues to conflate the two conflicts in its budgets and its rhetoric. Afghanistan is languishing in Iraq’s shadow. It’s time to separate out these two wars, or else we may lose both.

Lawrence Korb is a Senior Fellow and Caroline Wadhams a Senior Policy Analyst for national security at the Center for American Progress. To speak with them, please contact: