July 31, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
Roll Call

Washington Repeating Iraq Mistakes in Afghanistan

Last week, as Congress moved to pass nearly $100 billion in war funding through a supplemental bill, 10 other veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq joined me in Washington, D.C., to visit Members of Congress and staff to encourage them to vote against the funding.

I do not know which was harder, seeing the impossibility of success in Afghanistan or seeing the impossibility within Congress to voice dissent from the administration. As a corporal in the U.S. Marines — who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq and who remains willing to give my life for this country — let me say from experience that our current strategy will not bring security to Afghanistan or to America.

What pained me in Afghanistan was witnessing too many civilian casualties, too many children without food and women without husbands, too many innocent Afghans who became anti-American because of our actions. But what pains me now: witnessing too many Members of Congress, too many administration officials and too many think-tank experts support this military approach.

As I pounded the Hill’s pavement, I heard numerous reasons why Congress needed to support the president’s agenda, and not one was convincing. I heard everything from “we want to give the administration a chance” to “this is leftover spending from the Bush administration” to “this will be the last supplemental like this,” and the one I was most appalled by, as thousands of lives remain in question, “Don’t want to oppose the administration during its honeymoon stage.”

I would respond with, “But how will we measure success?” After eight years of combat operations you’d think someone in Congress would be able to answer this question, but no one could. The only thing they seemed able to do, even the military veterans turned Congressional staffers — after fully recognizing the merit in everything I had to say and positively affirming my policy recommendations — was to close the meeting with a reluctant shrug in support of the administration’s agenda.

This all sounds too familiar. We have seen it before in Iraq. Now, we are seeing it again in Afghanistan. Had it worked in Iraq in building a sustainable peace and a secure environment for Iraqis, then it might have made sense to try for a repeat performance in Afghanistan. But it failed in Iraq and it will not work in Afghanistan.

Iraq, in fact, is still reeling from U.S. missteps on strategy. Shias and Sunnis are still at odds thanks to our bolstering of Baghdad’s Shia leadership while simultaneously funneling monies and munitions to Sunnis in Anbar Province. The “Awakening Councils” strategy is now backfiring dangerously as Shias unsurprisingly refuse to continue the scheme and Sunnis, in response, have protested violently at the cessation of their illicit incomes. Furthermore, the walls we built in Baghdad to separate, within enclaves, Shias and Sunnis, continue to impede any integrated political environment.

That just skims the surface of the problems.

Most Iraqis remain without a consistent supply of the basics, be it sanitation, clean water, electricity or health services. We are leaving them divided and destitute. Most of Iraq’s infrastructure remains structurally ill-equipped, including transportation, utilities, agriculture, commerce, education and health care, among others. American private contractors, funded by the Defense and State departments, had no intention of rebuilding the country, returning the majority of every dollar to the U.S., not to Iraq. Contractors flew in, but money and skills flew out. Little local capacity was built, and as a result, six years after the invasion, the country remains as unstable as ever.

Sadly, the same strategy is now being saddled up for Afghanistan.

We are again overemphasizing military security instead of political, economic and social security, despite what we know about counterinsurgency campaigns requiring 80 percent political resources and 20 percent military resources. In Afghanistan, much like in Iraq, our ratio is the opposite, with nearly 90 percent of all resources going to military means and less than 10 percent spent on political and economic development.

We are again proceeding with a troop surge, despite the recognition that the numbers are more symbolic than strategic. Much like in Iraq, if we really wanted to manage the conflict — a choice, mind you, not sustainable militarily or financially — we would need to surge with 300,000 to 500,000 troops.

We are again choosing airstrikes and drone attacks, while knowing full well how frequently they are accompanied by civilian casualties, thus adding fuel to Afghan ire and creating fodder for further extremist recruitment. Even the military experts involved in Iraq — Gen. Paul Eaton and Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, who served Colin Powell as chief of staff — are voicing concern about the drone attacks, citing their inefficacy as a counterinsurgency tool and their efficacy in exacerbating radical sentiment.

We are again leaving little capacity behind. For every dollar spent on Afghanistan, 75 cents is returning to foreign coffers. As a result, the country’s transportation system, markets and mechanisms for trade, health care system, education system, law enforcement system, and commerce and workforce development remain poorly staffed and underdeveloped. That means the next generation of Afghan lawyers, tradesmen, masons, doctors, engineers, technicians, etc., is not being built. Why? Because the monies spent to develop the country’s infrastructure and skilled labor are leaving with foreign contractors.

Afghanistan, then, becomes the Iraq sequel in a resource-sapping sequence of U.S. invasions. It is not only the repeated pattern that is problematic, but also the premise of interventionism. Particularly when our country is in need of these critical resources, the least we could do is spend them efficiently and effectively in Iraq and Afghanistan. But we are not even doing that. We are frittering them away, hurting our country and theirs, too.

On Afghanistan, or with the possibility of a repeat performance in Pakistan, we must learn from the not-so-distant history of Iraq. We must rethink our strategy because it’s yielding little but upset allies, frustrated locals, fodder for extremists and less, not more, security. Change, then, is essential. The courage to do so in Congress, or throughout Washington, remains elusive.

Retired Marine Cpl. Rick Reyes served as an infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan and is a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War.

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