Obama's surge: has the president been misled by the Iraq analogy?

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Good timing made Bush’s surge look successful. Obama will probably enjoy no such luck

By Juan Cole Salon

President Barack Obama’s just-announced plan for Afghanistan seems modeled less on Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam strategy than on George W. Bush’s Iraq exit strategy. Or, at least it is modeled on the Washington mythology that Iraq was turned from quagmire into a face-saving qualified success by sheer indomitable will and a last-minute troop “surge.” But Afghanistan is not very much like Iraq, and the Washington consensus about its supposed end-game success in Iraq is wrong in key respects. Are think tank fantasies about an Iraq "victory" now misleading Obama into a set of serious missteps in Afghanistan?

     

Obama explicitly referred to the Iraq withdrawal as a model for Afghanistan, saying, "Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops by the end of 2011." He was referring to the Status of Forces Agreement imposed on Bush by the Iraqi parliament in fall of 2008, which set a timetable for withdrawal. The SOFA has worked better than its critics expected, in part because the new Iraqi Army is now capable of patrolling independently and is willing to stand and fight against popular militias, albeit with U.S. supplies and close air support.

Moreover, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gained control of his field officers, establishing forward operating bases that reported directly to him. He exaggerated his victory at Basra in spring of 2008 over the Mahdi Army militia, and unfairly discounted the role of U.S. air power and troops in lending the operation crucial support. He and his American allies, moreover, seldom acknowledge the crucial mediating role of Iran in getting the Mahdi Army to stand down. It is nevertheless true that the 275,000-strong Iraqi army can now face down most security challenges from militias. It cannot entirely stop terrorism and has not restored security to Sunni Arab cities such as Baquba and Mosul in the north, but overall attacks and civilian deaths have for the most part declined since the U.S. military ceased its active patrols. Iraq is an oil state, and is spending nearly $10 billion this year on the Ministries of Defense and the Interior (which oversees the police). Afghanistan’s entire gross domestic product is only about $12 billion a year on an exchange rate basis.

Read more at Salon

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