Choosing between Iraq and Afghanistan

The U.S. can no longer afford to fight both wars.

By Andrew Rigney

After several years of media neglect, Afghanistan is once again the it war. Over the past few months, government and public debate has intensified over the war’s costs. Specifically, this has focused on whether satisfying American interests are worth the costs in material and human terms. Unfortunately, these were grimly illustrated earlier in the week with the death of 14 Americans in a helicopter crash and a Taliban attack that killed several United Nations officials in Kabul.

Complicating these events in Afghanistan, a series of coordinated suicide bombings occurred in Iraq on Sunday. These attacks are a strong reminder of the continuing conflict in the country. Iraq remains the elephant in the room for the U.S. military. Although the intensity of the conflict has subsided since the 2007 “surge” in military forces, the United States continues to experience casualties and expend large amounts of funds. And because of the country’s instability, the situation in Iraq dictates that a large contingent of American forces remains.

Violence in Afghanistan and Iraq has intensified debate over whether to increase the number of military forces in both countries. Specifically, General Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, has requested an estimated 20,000 additional forces to the country. Citing the apparent success of the “surge” in Iraq, McChrystal has urged that these forces are necessary to ensure American “victory” in Afghanistan.

While it is possible that a similar “surge” of U.S. forces to Afghanistan would be successful, such a deployment may simply be unfeasible. This is because the United States’ military has passed its breaking point in terms of military manpower. American military manpower has been gradually exhausted by the stress of two intensive and lengthy conflicts. The absence of available forces has been coupled with a reduction in overall military effectiveness. The effectiveness of military units has been weakened through over-deployment. With many soldiers experiencing numerous combat tours, U.S. forces have been over-deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, causing a decreased solider morale and an overall decline in military efficiency.

But over-deployments have become a strategic necessity because of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts’ constant need for more men on the ground. However, this sustained strategy of over-deployments will significantly weaken U.S. military efficiency and overall efforts in these conflicts. Because of this reality, it would be beneficial for the U.S. to concentrate its military forces in either Afghanistan or Iraq. America’s manpower deficiency deprives military planners the luxury of realistically and effectively doing both.

The decision to concentrate forces in either Afghanistan or Iraq should be dictated by America’s strategic interests. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has several important interests, such as the elimination of terrorist sanctuaries, the defeat of the Taliban insurgency, the reduction of the country’s drug trade, and the stabilization of Afghanistan’s inchoate democracy.

However, satisfying these interests would have marginal benefits for the U.S., while incurring substantial costs in manpower and funds. It is therefore in America’s best strategic interest to concentrate forces in Iraq. Like in Afghanistan, the U.S. has interests in stabilizing Iraq’s democratic government. However, these are secondary to America’s significant security and economic interests in the country. Also, U.S. casualties in Iraq have been drastically reduced since the implementation of the “surge.” Because of these reduced costs and the potential long-term benefits, the United States would be best served by concentrating its military forces in Iraq.

By continuing to focus on both the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts, America’s manpower deficiency will be exacerbated, over-deployments increased, and military effectiveness reduced. These problems should lead policymakers to seriously rethink the efficacy of sending additional forces to Afghanistan. Not because the war there is “un-winnable,” but because doing so may further reduce both the United States’ military strength and the country’s long-term strategic interests.

Andrew Rigney is a graduate student in the University studying international relations.