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Afghanistan and the Iraq surge


Daniel Drezner has a good post critiquing analogical thinking on wars. Comparing the war in Afghanistan to the war in Vietnam or the surge in Iraq is flawed, he says. The Obama administration has been at pains to signal that it understands that with Vietnam. Not so with Iraq. "I'd like to know the extent to which the administration recognizes the flaws in the surge analogy," says Drezner.

So would I. This is particularly important because I'm not sure it really works to analogize the surge in Iraq with "the surge in Iraq." The infusion of troops entered the policy arena as a response to the Iraq Study Group's recommendation of a phased withdrawal twinned with an enormous diplomatic effort. But people don't evaluate the surge against some hypothetical world in which we'd implemented the ISG strategy. They evaluate the surge against the pre-surge world in which everything was going to hell. But though it's clear that we needed a change of strategy in 2005, it's not clear that the world in which we implemented the surge was the best of all possible worlds. Maybe it was. But maybe not.

Moreover, the surge was one of a host of strategies and opportunities that Petraeus adroitly threaded into his rescue of the Iraq mission. Chief among them was the al-Anbar Awakening, in which a coalition of Sunni tribes decided they'd had enough of the volatile, violent theocrats muscling into their territory and, in return for lots of support and lots of cash, they allied themselves, at least temporarily, with the American project. Then there was the ethnic cleansing that had calmed Baghdad, and Sadr's strategic pause.

There were a lot of factors driving the turnaround in Iraq. The infusion of new troops was only one of them, and not obviously the causal one. But in the American mind, that strategy was the troop surge, and that comparison has been the implicit argument behind the new strategy in Afghanistan. Obama's advisers are, of course, sophisticated on this stuff, and they could certainly give a long and detailed explanation of how their logic differs from the surge's logic, and how Afghanistan's underlying dynamics offer genuine opportunity. But as of yet, they haven't.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

By Ezra Klein  |  December 2, 2009; 10:11 AM ET
Categories:  Afghanistan  
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do you or any of your colleagues know how many blackwater employees are now under contract from our government, working in afghanistan? and how much we are paying them?
and other similar private organizations?

Posted by: jkaren | December 2, 2009 10:18 AM | Report abuse

When the N is so small, these sorts of analogies have little meaning. It's like saying I know how to be a lion tamer because I've done it once before.

Increased security in urban areas will be more than offset by more violence overall and more international terrorism. Everybody knows that. This only makes sense from the standpoint of people who like war.

Posted by: bmull | December 2, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

An analogy is different from a comparison. An analogy merely states that something is the image of something else. Recent example: I'm trying' to clean up here, I've got a broom, Nancy's got a broom, quit talkin' and let us clean up the mess someone else left. An analogy is for rhetorical purposes. A comparison on the other hand can be the occasion for learning and invites examination. Okay, is the situation in Afghanistan like, or unlike that in Iraq, and what else flows from the differences or similarities. A comparison is often between two reasonably similar entities while an analogy works by the surprise of the association -- a broom, for instance, with a piece of legislation.

Posted by: truck1 | December 2, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

Cause and effect in foreign policy is ALWAYS screwed up.

In the American mind, we showed up on D-day and the Germans said, well, okay, we surrender. The 20 million Soviets who died didn't have much to do with it.

Posted by: Klug | December 2, 2009 1:02 PM | Report abuse

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