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US Lessons in Afghanistan Could be Useful in Iraq - 2003-05-02

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has declared an end to major combat in Afghanistan and says the emphasis is now on reconstruction.

In 2001, U.S. troops were deployed to Afghanistan to lead the effort to dislodge a repressive regime. Nearly 18 months later, U.S. forces again spearheaded a successful assault to topple a dictatorial government, this time in Iraq.

Aside from that, they are two nations with little in common. Afghanistan is poor country battered by many years of war and civil strife, with an ill-educated population that is heavily dependent on agriculture. Iraq's war damage is of more recent vintage from a conflict of shorter duration. The country has natural resources such as oil, and the population is better educated than that of Afghanistan.

But there are lessons, some of them harsh, learned in the U.S. experience in Afghanistan that might be applied in Iraq as the United States seeks to put the building blocks in place for an Iraqi democracy. Jonathan Tepperman, a senior editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, says the United States risks ignoring the Afghan experience at its peril.

"I fear, as do many others, that if we repeat the mistakes we made in Afghanistan, which is not giving the country nearly as much attention as it deserves after having toppled the regime there, if we repeat those mistakes in Iraq, the entire region, and the United States as well, is in for a lot of trouble," he said.

Analysts say that once the fighting stopped the international community to a certain extent lost interest in Afghanistan. Many pledges of aid by international donor countries went unfulfilled.

Edmund McWilliams, a former U.S. Special Envoy on Afghanistan, said the United States appears more committed in Iraq.

"If there's anything hopeful to say about Iraq, there seems to be a realization that there's going to have to be a long-term commitment and a very significant infusion of money to bring Iraq back to a stable level," he said. "Unfortunately in Afghanistan, we lost interest very quickly. The monies that were promised by the international community, and to some extent the United States, simply weren't forthcoming. And the commitment specifically to security outside Kabul was not considered serious enough to warrant deployment of enough troops."

As the looting in Iraq showed, security is a paramount concern. Tom Gottierre, head of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says that despite the progress in education and other areas in Afghanistan, lack of personal security remains a problem.

"How can one hope to have an effective set of elections in Afghanistan next year if people don't feel secure enough to be able to go to the polls?" he asked. "Or how can international assistance workers go into the provinces if they don't feel secure? So there are things that have been done that are successful, that have certainly conveyed the message to the Afghans that there's progress. But these issues of security certainly tend to undermine the confidence that Afghans need to have about the way things are going."

Analysts also warn of too much reliance on Iraqi exiles in setting up an interim authority in Baghdad. Mr. McWilliams points out that in Afghanistan, U.S. officials had the advantage of having dealt with the current Afghan interim president, Hamid Karzai, for many years. But Mr. McWilliams believes there is far less knowledge of the political forces and figures inside Iraq.

"I don't think we know that constitution [group] of people," he said. "We did know and have good contact with Hamid Karzai from the anti-Soviet period. But we don't really have the kind of depth of contact with people now in Iraq that we're probably going to have to select leadership from."

Iraq is currently under control of a U.S. temporary administration. Talks are under way to set up an interim government, but the road map to a permanent democratic government remains hazy.