Last night, over a good meal, two Department colleagues and I talked with several out-of-town guests for quite some time about the prolonged war in Afghanistan. Eventually, I happened to make a point that a fellow blogger said seemed novel and interesting — certainly worthy of a blog post.

Let’s see if anyone agrees.

As many experts note, the war in Afghanistan is prolonged in large part because too much of the local population sees the U.S.-NATO intervention as illegitimate. Regardless of good intentions, Americans are seen as unwanted foreign invaders. Moreover, even U.S. Generals concede that the Karzai regime lacks legitimacy within much of Afghanistan.

In contrast, of course, the war in Afghanistan is widely seen as legitimate by the international community of states. There’s plenty of evidence: the September 2001 UN Security Council Resolution, NATO support, etc.

Is the reverse true in regard to the Iraq war? Is the Afghan war a mirror-image legitimacy problem? Is there anything novel about such a claim?

Internationally, the world clearly refused to grant legitimacy to the American invasion in 2003 — and continued to be skeptical of the war for many years.

Did Iraqis view the war and occupation as legitimate? Obviously, Iraqis who have used violence against U.S. troops see the invasion and/or occupation as illegitimate. However, Iraq’s Kurds have long appreciated America’s assistance in holding off Saddam Hussein’s government and providing them a measure of autonomous rule. Iraq’s Shia may not have supported war, but they have been big winners in terms of political clout within Iraq. Many Shia politicians have actively cooperated with the USA and most would likely applaud the toppling of Saddam. The minority Sunni — bigger losers in Iraq’s internal power struggle — have certainly not been pro-American, but many have been pacified since the Anbar Awakening and are perhaps willing to take their chances with domestic politics. Additionally, the Status of Forces Agreement arguably legitimizes the current US position within Iraq.

By making this argument last night, I was trying to point out that America’s task of securing and stabilizing Afghanistan will likely be even more difficult than was the comparable task in Iraq. I know, I know. That may seem obvious given the length of the Afghan war — nearly 8 years now! However, many critics of U.S. policy have argued that the problem in Afghanistan was a simple lack of attention and resources. Once U.S. attention turns from Iraq, the U.S. can get down to business.

I say no.

The lack of international legitimacy meant that the U.S. had to pay almost all of the costs in Iraq (compared, say, to the 1991 Persian Gulf War). Those costs have been very painful, but once America devoted substantial resources it achieved a measure of success in Iraq — and agreed to a way out with an Iraqi government that has a measure of legitimacy.

On the other hand, the lack of legitimacy within Afghanistan means that America’s COIN strategy faces an enormous uphill battle. Almost regardless of international assistance, the US and NATO will not be able to defeat insurgent forces in Afghanistan unless the domestic government is viewed as legitimate (and likely autonomous) and the western forces are NOT viewed as foreign invaders.

Rather than problematically increasing the size of the US military presence in Afghanistan, it might be better to do the difficult social and political work to “appreciate the dynamics in local communities” and understand “how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”

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