Afghanistan had an election a few weeks ago. Iraq had one Wednesday. But that is about all that these two countries, both invaded by the United States in the last decade, have in common right now. Afghanistan is moving forward just as rapidly as Iraq is moving backward. It is a telling contrast, and one that should inform the looming decision about a U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan after 2014.
Iraq is being plunged deeper into the abyss of all-out civil war that it barely avoided in 2007 thanks to President George W. Bush's troop "surge." Today, violence is back up to 2008 levels as Al Qaeda in Iraq, now known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, has returned from its near-death experience.
ISIS once again controls much of Anbar province, and its fighters regularly set off car bombs that kill scores of innocent people across the Shiite Muslim heartland. ISIS fighters are drawing nearer to Baghdad itself, retaking areas they lost in 2007 and 2008. So perilous has the situation become that the government closed the notorious Abu Ghraib prison, west of Baghdad, for fear that it would fall into insurgent hands.
Al Qaeda's comeback has been enabled by the shortsighted policies of Iraq's sectarian prime minister, Nouri Maliki, who is now unrestrained by a U.S. military presence. He has targeted senior Sunni Muslim politicians, including former Vice President Tariq Hashimi, for prosecution. He has fired on groups of Sunni demonstrators. And, worst of all, he has welcomed the Shiite militia groups Asaib Ahl Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, both supplied by Iran, who are fighting alongside the overmatched Iraqi security forces against Sunni militants. These militias are held responsible for massacres of Sunnis in towns such as Buhriz, north of Baghdad.
Iraq is now in the midst of a cycle of sectarian violence — with Sunnis murdering Shiites in retaliation for Shiite murders of Sunnis, and vice versa — that leads to the seventh circle of hell into which nations such as Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Syria have previously plunged. There is no obvious escape in sight because, by manipulating Iraq's sectarian politics, Maliki has managed to solidify Shiite support, which will probably ensure his continuation in office for a third term even as the country collapses. (Only the quasi-independent Kurdish region remains peaceful.)
Contrast that with Afghanistan, which I visited last week. While violence, corruption, drug production and government dysfunction remain very real problems in what is still one of the world's poorest countries, Afghanistan is making real progress. Kabul is bustling and, notwithstanding some high-profile Taliban attacks, far safer than Baghdad. The Afghan National Security Forces, now 370,000 strong, largely on their own managed to beat back Taliban attempts last summer to retake strongholds in Kandahar and Helmand provinces that had been won in the U.S.-led offensive from 2010 to 2012.
Even more impressive, the security forces managed with virtually no coalition presence on the ground to secure the April 5 presidential election despite Taliban attempts to disrupt it. According to Afghan news sources, some 7 million voters — more than 30% of them women — turned out to cast ballots.
Most heartening of all, the top two vote-getters — former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani — are pro-Western moderates who have vowed to sign an agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain after this year.
Neither man was the favored candidate of the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, who is seen as too corrupt and too anti-American by most voters. And both candidates managed to transcend ethnic boundaries: Ghani, a Pashtun, pulled in Uzbek voters thanks to his choice of Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as his running mate; Abdullah, of Tajik and Pashtun parentage, pulled in Pashtun votes with a strategy of outreach.
The inauguration of either man would represent the first peaceful transfer of power in Afghanistan's recent history.
There was nothing preordained about the fact that Afghanistan would be doing, by many measures, better than Iraq. It has none of the oil wealth of Iraq. Its population is poorer and not as educated. And its insurgency enjoys more cross-border support — from Pakistan — than Iraq's ever did. Just a few years ago, Iraq appeared to be in much better shape: President Obama bragged on Dec. 14, 2011, that "we're leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq."
In hindsight, however, it is obvious that Iraq began to unravel the minute the last U.S. troops left. Without their advice and support, the Iraqi armed forces, however strong on paper, can't even feed and supply their own soldiers, much less defeat Al Qaeda militants. More important, the lack of U.S. troops has removed the leverage U.S. officials once enjoyed to limit Maliki's sectarian tendencies.
There is an important lesson to be learned here: It's vitally important to keep a substantial commitment of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after this year. Military commanders are asking for at least 10,000 personnel, and if that request isn't granted by the White House (as leaks suggest it may not be), the odds will increase that Afghanistan, like Iraq, will descend into a civil war that undoes everything U.S. troops sacrificed so much to achieve.
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare From Ancient Times to the Present.