The Road Ahead for Iraq and Afghanistan

Categories: Hollings Highlights

Young girl in Herat, Afghanistan

Julia Bunting, Communications and Administrative Coordinator 

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Following the recent U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, the American public’s attention is shifting away from more than a decade of overseas wars. In an attempt to bring closure to these overseas engagements, many experts and think tanks have reflected on whether the wars have been “worth it.”  But less attention is given to Iraqi and Afghan perspectives. As MERIP notes in its most recent Middle East Report, Iraq: Ten Years Later, “Almost without exception, the rush of ten-year reflections ignored that the war happened mostly for Iraqis and that millions of them live with its traumas still.” In ignoring the perspectives of Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s citizens, we fail to fully appreciate the total cost of the wars. But more than that, we miss out on the story of rebuilding and progress that both Iraq and Afghanistan are working towards.

In an effort to highlight Iraqi perspectives, the Hollings Center convened a dialogue in February 2013 on “Iraq’s Foreign Policy and Economic Challenges: A Next-Generation Dialogue.” This dialogue brought together a diverse group of Iraqi voices, along with their American counterparts, to reflect on the challenges remaining for Iraq in the years ahead. The dialogue mirrored in some ways a May 2011 Hollings Center conference on “The Future of Afghan-U.S. Relations: Development, Investment and Cultural Exchange.” While each country faces unique economic and political challenges, a common theme is found in the Dialogue Snapshots from both conferences: despite hardships and negative international perceptions, progressis occurring. Yet, this progress is threatened by U.S. disengagement.

Afghanistan political map

A participant from the Afghanistan conference noted, “Whatever we think of development in Afghanistan, we have to think of where we came from 10 years ago. There were no privately owned cars, no electricity, no food and all the streets were filled with Indian, Pakistan and Iranian goods – now life is going on.” Afghanistan has experienced a revival of agribusiness, improvements in the health sector and development of the country’s road and electric network, which may be still-maligned by the international community but represent serious improvements from before. Similarly, a key finding from our Iraq Dialogue Snapshot confirmed that Iraqis feel that the nation’s international image has improved more slowly than the country’s actual progress. Iraq’s per capita GDP increased from $683 USD in 2003 to $3,758 USD in 2011 and political institutions, such as provincial councils, are developing.

Despite real, measurable progress made in both Afghanistan and Iraq over the last 10 years, participants from each country worry this progress will be undermined by unclear or tenuous U.S. engagement. Back in 2011, Afghans were discouraged by speeches and statements by President Obama that failed to address strategic or economic relations between the US and Afghanistan post-2014. Almost two years later, Iraqis find themselves feeling much the same; the future of U.S. engagement and assistance to Iraq remains unclear.  Indeed, distress over the state of the U.S.-Iraq bilateral relationship was one of the most prominent themes from the discussions with Iraqi participants. Fears and feelings of abandonment grew out of the 2008 election, which focused heavily on U.S. desires to leave the conflict in Iraq behind.

How can Iraq and Afghanistan maintain progress with less U.S. engagement? Here the similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan end. Despite lacking the revenue that Iraq’s oil industry provides to the economy, Afghanistan may actually better positioned to become self-sufficient. Thanks to a diverse private sector and restive civil society, some Afghans believe that a critical mass of young professionals in the country are willing to take leadership roles despite the many risks (watch this video of an event on Afghanistan’s cultural institutions and private sector to see how Afghans describe the challenges and opportunities ahead).  Still, Afghan civil society must work to offset negative coverage of their challenges by promoting stories of their economic and cultural success. The private sector could also better organize to create a national development strategy that plans beyond the high level of aid currently flowing into the Afghan economy.

Iraq political mapBy contrast, easy access to oil revenue in Iraq has created serious challenges for the country’s long-term stability, including a very homogenous private sector, a bloated public sector and a lack of unified policy between Baghdad and Erbil as each pursue their own agendas. These economic, political and demographic challenges will not be easy to overcome, especially in light of the divergent interests of Iraqi stakeholders. To surmount the lack of diversity in the economy, the government must do more to promote interest in small and medium-sized enterprises and reverse the brain drain which has left a great deficit of technocrats and private-sector professionals in Iran—perhaps more visibly and consequentially than in Afghanistan.