Lessons from Iraq

By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Joshua Goodman
Ottawa Citizen
January 13, 2009

The election of Barack Obama and Gen. David Petraeus’s appointment as the head of U.S. Central Command have brought the U.S. a greater commitment to the Afghanistan war. Just as one of Gen. Petraeus’s top priorities upon assuming command of Multi-National Force-Iraq was changing the coalition forces’ failing strategy, he also wants to change the approach to Afghanistan.

Much of the United States’ success in Iraq over the past two years can be attributed to the rise of the “Awakening” movement, a collection of Sunni tribesmen, Iraqi nationalists, ex-Baathists, and others who were united by the goal of driving al-Qaeda from their country. The U.S. has presented a plan to organize Afghans in a similar manner.

While some NATO leaders have supported this strategy, Canada has stated its opposition to attempts to create an Afghan Awakening. Canadian Defence Minister Peter MacKay recently said that Canada prefers “to continue with this more formal training process that leads to a more reliable, more professional soldier and Afghan national security force.”

To assess whether an Afghan Awakening deserves a chance, it is worth understanding the keys to success for Iraq’s Awakening.

It was a genuinely grassroots movement led by people respected by the Iraqi population; coalition forces provided the Awakening with protection, support, and internal diplomatic aid at key points; and after the Awakening’s success, it was broadened through the “Sons of Iraq” program, a U.S. initiative that authorized the formation of paramilitary organizations.

In Iraq, the Awakening changed the dynamics militarily in areas that seemed lost to the insurgency. Awakening councils provided stability on the ground, and the fact that they were an indigenous movement gave lie to the idea that al-Qaeda in Iraq represented the interests of the Iraqi people.

The main reason to try an Afghan Awakening is that there appears to be little alternative. As Canadian Lt.-Gen. Michel Gauthier has observed, even with the expected U.S. troop “surge” in Afghanistan, there won’t be enough coalition and Afghan forces to provide short-term stability. “I’ve criticized the notion from time to time,” Lt.-Gen. Gauthier told the Canadian Press, but “in the absence of sufficient ANP (Afghan National Police) and ANA (Afghan National Army), what’s the solution?”

Building on existing opposition to the Taliban in Afghanistan, an Afghan Awakening could offer a number of benefits. One of them is providing indigenous popular support to coalition efforts, which is currently lacking. Second, much of the Taliban’s popular support is predicated on the idea that they are better than chaos. The Taliban have a functioning structure of government in areas where the central government does not. An Awakening movement would provide an alternative, other than the Afghan government, to the Taliban and outright anarchy.

The main arguments against an Afghan Awakening involve the effect that it would have on Afghanistan’s central government, and the national military and police. The bottom line, though, is that there is no forced choice between attempting to create an Awakening and working to strengthen the Afghan national forces.

Nor would an Afghan Awakening necessarily pose a long-term challenge to Afghanistan’s central government. Currently, the Sons of Iraq are either being incorporated into Iraq’s security forces or else their fighters are being sent to vocational colleges to prepare for non-military work. Though there have been problems with this process, reintegration of the Sons of Iraq has been largely successful. In the long term, an Afghan Awakening could be similarly incorporated into the Afghan forces.

To succeed, an Afghan Awakening would have to be flexible and have strong leaders. Afghanistan’s needs differ dramatically from province to province and district to district, and the Awakening model should reflect divergent local needs. Moreover, Iraq’s Awakening benefited from having a charismatic leader at its founding: the slain Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi. His brother, present Awakening leader Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, noted this in a 47-page memorandum sent to U.S. forces in April 2008 that outlines how an Awakening could be fomented in Afghanistan.

Regardless of the success of the new strategy, 2009 will likely be a challenging and deadly year in Afghanistan. Coalition casualties in Iraq increased in 2007 as Gen. Petraeus’s new strategy was implemented, and there wasn’t a substantial reduction in military casualties until October.

Despite these initial hardships, the changes in strategy in Iraq helped to change the situation on the ground: monthly civilian and military casualty numbers are now about a third of what they were in 2006 and 2007.

With coalition casualties in Afghanistan reaching their highest levels in 2008, there does not appear to be a strong alternative to trying an Afghan Awakening.