It is often difficult to disentangle the debates on Afghanistan and Iraq. The two are not the same, as Tony Cordsman demonstrates convincingly in his latest brief. Part of the problem of course is the rhetoric used for both tends to slip into the same fight against islamo-fascism story. In this regard, Harper’s shift in language in Canada has been particularly unhelpful in distinguishing the conflict Canadians supported (Afghanistan) from the one they widely did not (Iraq).
One issue that gets improperly conflated between the two is the issue of timelines. If timelines are good in Iraq, as the Democrats are telling us in the US, then surely they should then be good in Afghanistan as well, as the Liberals in Canada claim? In fact, I would argue that timelines are good for US engagement in Iraq, and not for NATO engagement in Afghanistan. Let me explain.
In Iraq, a significant majority of the population (lets say 80%), view Americans as occupiers and actually support attacks against them. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, a significant majority of the population (some polls say 90%), support NATO presence. In Iraq, therefore, the timelines would serve to demonstrate to a unsupportive population that the US is not permanently occupying their country. A positive thing, and likely to bring local support to their side. In Afghanistan, the lack of a timeline would show Afghan’s that the international community is committed to staying long enough to fight off the resurging Taliban, who by all accounts are making progress in the south and convincing local populations that it is better, in the long term, to side with them. A timeline in Afghanistan would support the rhetoric of the Taliban and likely drive support to them.
Timelines are good in Iraq because they will serve to convince the unsupportive population that the occupation is not permanent. Timelines are bad in Afghanistan because they would suggest to a supportive population that it would be in their long term interests to side with the resurging Taliban.