The capture of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq by Sunni Fundamentalist group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS) on June 9 shocked the region. This group of 1,500 to 2,000 fighters was able to drive through Iraq from the North, capturing towns and cities en route, forcing trained and structured state forces and the army to flee and surrender in a matter of days, in a manner reminiscent of the days of the blitzkrieg.
There was a flicker of hope when the ISIS onslaught was halted North of Baghdad in the city of Samarra, but reports of ISIS capturing Iraq’s biggest oil refinery at Baiji on June 19 have heightened security concerns. The Iraqi government has asked for international assistance and has even asked the U.S. to launch airstrikes on terrorist locations. Iran has assured the Iraqi government its support and reports suggest that the Al Quds battalions are already in Iraq helping the Iraqi army in stave off the ISIS march towards Baghdad. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has cautioned against external intervention, claiming that it could trigger a regional conflict. The U.S., however, is sending 300 “advisors.”
The situation in Iraq is explosive and threatens to erupt into a larger regional conflict divided along sectarian fault lines. The Iraqi government of Nouri al-Maliki has done little in the past eight years to lessen the sectarian divide, leaving Iraq a riven society with the Kurds in the North, Sunnis in the center, and the Shias in the South and East.
As Iraq fights off its latest threat, Afghanistan is emerging from decades of war and attempting the transition to peace and stability. Like Afghanistan, Iraq too had endured years of conflict before it too attempted a peaceful and democratic transition in 2006. It is hard not to draw important parallels between the two countries and important lessons for Afghanistan.
Both Iraq and Afghanistan experienced an invasion of U.S.-led forces determined to remove tyrannical regimes. In the case of Iraq it was the (ultimately non-existent) threat of WMDs built by the Saddam Hussein regime that triggered the U.S. action, while in Afghanistan it was the presence of al-Qaeda, which was behind 9/11. In both cases, the primary targets (Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden) were eventually eliminated. In both cases, the actual combat and resolution of the threat to the U.S. itself was quick and precise, but the military engagement lingered on before combat missions were brought to an end with a reconfigured “surge,” a process due to conclude in Afghanistan this year.
Yet no WMDs were found in Iraq and nor was al-Qaeda eliminated from Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the military goals have continued to shift, for instance from defeating the Taliban to the more modest goal of reducing its momentum. At the end of the mission, Iraq and the U.S. signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), while Afghanistan is expected to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). Both agreements entailed the presence of U.S. troops in training and assistance while taking on any counterterrorist threat in conjunction with the local armies. While the Iraqi SOFA ended in 2011, the Afghanistan BSA has yet to be signed, but U.S. military support could well end after 2016, at least according to President Barack Obama’s speech at West Point last month.
In terms of societies too, both countries share similar fault lines. While Iraq is split into three major groups – Sunnis, Shia and Kurds – Afghanistan has four major ethnic groups : Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. In both cases the groups harbor deep-rooted mistrust and the regimes have always supported one group, suppressing the others, which has led to regular violence. In Iraq, while Saddam Hussein led a Sunni regime that suppressed the Shias, in Afghanistan, the regimes have normally been Pashtun.
Neighbors and regional powers in both cases have exercised tremendous sway over the internal affairs of the countries and have been instrumental in generating instability rather than peace. While Iran has been a major influence in Iraq, in the case of Afghanistan, it has been Pakistan. Both Iran and Pakistan see legitimate reason for interfering and have run their agenda accordingly.
Meanwhile, the ISIS in Iraq has support from across Syria, and the Taliban in Afghanistan has support from its leaders and bases in Pakistan. Also, both the Taliban and ISIS represent Sunni militancy and receive funding from similar sources in the Sunni world. In terms of governance, while Maliki in Iraq chose to ignore the Sunnis and Kurds, leading widespread violence especially after 2012, Karzai in Afghanistan squandered the opportunity to deal with the Taliban when they were in trouble in 2002, before reemerging as a potent force by 2004-05.
The countries share many other similarities. As Iraq deals with its ongoing crisis, there are lessons for Afghanistan. In particular, Afghanistan should understand that security is paramount for a successful transition and it should negotiate the content and timeline of the BSA accordingly. The capacity building of the armed forces needs equal priority with economic reconstruction to prevent the kind of collapse seen in Iraq. The armed forces must be balanced across ethnic lines. In terms of governance, the new Afghan president will have to cater to all ethnicities to prevent the marginalization of one or more groups.
Also very important is how Afghanistan is permitted to shape its future. This depends on Pakistan and other neighbors. If Afghanistan is able to function without interference, a replay of the Iraq situation might be prevented. Reconciliation with the Taliban will be another major issue, to ensure that it not only joins the mainstream but stays clear of external influences of the kind that have enflamed the situation in Iraq and Syria.
As Afghanistan looks to a new era with the transition and the election of its first president in the post-Karzai era, the unfolding situation in Iraq offer a stark reminder and timely lessons for the new Afghani government. Should it fall prey to the kind of folly seen in Iraq, the repercussions will be felt well beyond Afghanistan.