Iraq Versus Afghanistan

Christopher Hitchens sums up the war effort nicely:

The situation is bad and possibly deteriorating. In spite of open elections with wide participation, and in spite of the promulgation of a federal-type constitution that controversially privileges Islam, attacks are on the increase and the number of American soldiers already killed in 2005 is almost double the number for last year. Suicide bombers, often recruited from beyond the borders but also generated internally, demonstrate increasing ruthlessness and sophistication. Kidnapping and hostage-taking suggest an overlap between jihadism and organized crime. Warlordism and sectarianism remain toxic. No obvious end is in sight. The situation in Afghanistan, in other words, is giving rise to mounting concern.

Not enough concern, however, to prompt many calls for a date for withdrawal from Kabul.

True enough. So, why then, the difference? (Aside from the fact that Afghanistan has been almost entirely forgotten.) After batting down several plausible alternatives, Hitchens contends,

The real difference is this, if one is permitted to mention such a coarse thing as interest: Iraq is enormously more important, geopolitically, than Afghanistan. It sits beside one of the choke-point sea lanes of the global economy, and it occupies a keystone position between the Wahhabist theocracy of Saudi Arabia and the Shiite theocracy of Iran. One may despair of the stupidity of the Bush administration’s “drug war” in Afghanistan (“just hold still while we liberate you and burn your only crop and make sure that all profits go to gangsters”), but it is a bagatelle when compared to the gigantic stakes of Iraqi oil. If anything like a federal and democratic Iraq emerged and was able to recuperate its ravaged and corrupted oil fields, it could undercut the Saudi and Iranian duopoly as well as provide a modern standard of living to a people immiserated by three decades of war and fascism. This would be a prize of historic proportions.

But this would be a good thing, no?

Regardless, his conclusion is right:

It would be wonderful if an elected Iraqi government and parliament—which is thinkable after this December—took the decision to thank the coalition and to invite it to fold its tent and depart. But anyone who thinks that this would stop the madness of jihad need only look at Afghanistan, where a completely discredited and isolated minority continues to use suicide-murder as a tactic and a strategy. How strange that the anti-war left should have forgotten all of its Marxism and superciliously ignored the fact that oil is blood: lifeblood for Iraqis and others. Under Saddam it was wholly privatized; now it can become more like a common resource. But it will need to be protected against those who would shed it and spill it without compunction, and we might as well become used to the fact. With or without a direct Anglo-American garrison, there is an overwhelming humanitarian and international and civilizational interest in defeating the Arab Khmer Rouge that threatens Mesopotamia, and if we could achieve agreement on that single point, the other disagreements would soon disclose themselves as being of a much lesser order.

That is, however, a big “If.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. anjin-san says:

    There is no doubt that Bush took his eye of the ball and failed to finish the job in Afghanistan, obsessed as his admin was with starting a war with Iraq. So the people of Afghanistan suffer, and as a bonus, Bin Laden (remember ol’ dead or alive Bin?) remains at large. As for Iraq, once you open Pandora’s box, all bets are off.

  2. Jack Ehrlich says:

    Pilot, you lead us astray. I must ask, did you fail to read what Hitchens wrote? There a many examples of “none are so blind as those who refuse to see”, but what part of removal of the Taliban, the ending of al-Qaeda training centers, putting Bin Ladin in fugitive status, the elections and and new democratic government did you miss? To say the effort in Afghanistan was a failure because we did not capture of kill OBL is like saying we lost WWII because Joseph Megele got away. I am thinks you are suffering from BDS.

  3. anjin-san says:

    Well lets see Jack,

    Since we did not finish the job in Afghanistan, the Taliban is gaining ground. Bin Laden a fugitive? Swell. Bush promised him to us “dead or alive”. Guess he forgot. Democratic government? Not in most of the country. The leaders of the country are too busy trying to stay alive to govern very effectively.

    Tell me Jack, how would you have felt about WW2 if Hitler had gotten away? Thats a bit more valid of a comparison then Megele.

    And of course, thanks to our brilliant policy in Iraq, terrorists now have that country to perfect their skills in.