Back to the future in Iraq and Afghanistan

Consensus is not a word usually associated with Iraq, but as security improves in the wake of the US troop surge, interested parties – the Bush administration, Iraq's Shia-led government, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, the Arab Gulf states and Iran – all agree, to varying degrees and for different reasons, that the time has come to start planning the withdrawal of US combat troops.

The corollary of this proposition is that additional US and Nato forces should be sent to Afghanistan where, in contrast, security is deteriorating. Again, there is a surprising amount of agreement. Democrat Barack Obama argues Afghanistan, not Iraq, is the "central front in the war on terror". The US defence secretary, Robert Gates, says reinforcements will be sent "sooner rather than later". The Republican candidate, John McCain concurs. So too does Britain's Gordon Brown.

But the fact that everyone broadly agrees on a certain course of action does not mean it is necessarily wise or sensible. Military commanders and regional experts cite plenty of reasons why a drawdown in Iraq, whether fast or slow, risks tipping that country back into quasi-anarchy. It is likewise far from obvious that sending more troops to Afghanistan will bring "victory" over the Taliban. It could simply make matters worse.

Look behind the "surge success" headlines and it is evident that Iraq's fundamental problems of political unity, ethnic identity, religious disparity and economic insufficiency remain largely unresolved five years after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Al-Qaida has been sent reeling and sectarian warfare has been curbed – but neither has been eliminated. The Iranian-backed Shia street militias have been dispersed but not destroyed.

The coalition government of Nouri al-Maliki, though stronger than its predecessors, still cannot construct an equitable nationwide oil revenue-sharing agreement. Thanks to entrenched differences between Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and others in the city of Kirkuk, this year's provincial elections are now certain to be delayed, as next year's general election may also be.

An intense negotiation over a security agreement governing the future US presence is meanwhile approaching a climax. Maliki's dilemma? He wants to stand tall and look independent in the eyes of his people and his Arab neighbours, but he still badly needs US military underpinning. Sunni "Awakening" leaders in Anbar province are in the same boat. They urged Obama to drop his pullout plan during his grand tour this week.

The extreme caution shown by General David Petraeus, the US commander, when talking about combat troop withdrawals reflects unease within the military about the fate that could befall residual US forces, and the Iraqi government and population, if reduced security were to be successfully exploited by Islamists or rival sectarian militants.

"The danger is significant. We are facing brutal, determined enemies in Iraq as well as other destabilising factors. We should not underestimate the enemy nor should we overestimate the capability and legitimacy of the Iraqi government and security forces," said a senior US military official. "The coalition, in much of Iraq, is still the glue that is holding Iraq together and helping the various communities reach a political accommodation. The situation is improving every day but progress in Iraq will not be linear."

American Enterprise Institute scholar Fred Kagan, one of the intellectual architects of the surge, also argues that the scramble to leave Iraq – even George Bush and McCain, pressured by Obama's 16-month timetable, are now talking about accelerated troop cuts, time horizons and aspirational goals – could backfire.

"Iraq remains a critical front in al-Qaida's war against the US … Its central leadership has been seeking ways to regain lost ground. They are failing because of the continuous pressure of US and Iraqi forces. If that pressure is relaxed, they will begin to succeed again," Kagan warned recently.

He also claimed that vanquished Shia militias, notably the Mahdi army of Moqtada al-Sadr, were regrouping under Iranian supervision. "They [Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders] are retraining and re-equipping thousands of fighters who fled the most recent Iraqi and coalition operations in Basra, Baghdad and Maysan provinces."

The recently arrived-at conventional wisdom that by releasing troops from Iraq, the dire situation in Afghanistan will somehow magically improve also requires a more rigorous scrutiny. McCain and Gates are talking about deploying an additional 10,000 soldiers or three combat brigades there; Obama would send two. That would take total US and Nato force levels to, at most, 82,000 troops, plus 145,000 Afghan army and police of varying reliability.

But to attain a lasting improvement in security while creating critical breathing space for reconstruction and institution building, a much larger presence may be deemed necessary. General Dan McNeill, a former Nato commander in Afghanistan, has estimated 300,000 well-trained, disciplined security personnel are needed. Some US counter-insurgency experts say an additional 150,000 fighting soldiers are required.

These huge numbers should give pause, especially to Obama. Having opposed the Iraq quagmire and scored political points for doing so, the Democrat is in danger of putting his name to another escalating foreign military adventure that while arguably more justified, is just as likely as Iraq to go badly, bloodily wrong.

Simon Tisdall