TSG IntelBrief: How Iraq and Afghanistan Portend Failure in Syria
September 29, 2015

How Iraq and Afghanistan Portend Failure in Syria

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Reports that the Taliban has effectively taken control of the important northern city of Kunduz, Afghanistan, show how little lasting change has been accomplished in 14 years of U.S. combat and reconstruction efforts

• The fall of Kunduz is similar to last year’s seizure of Mosul by the Islamic State; Iraq is just as fractured and broken as Afghanistan, despite similar levels of investment and effort

• The twin failures of reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq should serve as an ominous warning of what lies ahead for Syria in the coming decades

• The nature of the Syrian conflict, the devastation it has wrought, and the history of failed post-conflict interventions all but guarantee that Syria faces significant challenges ahead, notwithstanding substantial economic and diplomatic resources.

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Reports of the fall of Kunduz, Afghanistan to Taliban fighters are a tragic exclamation point to the objective failure of the 14-year U.S. combat and reconstruction efforts in the country. Despite the expenditure of almost $1 trillion USD in U.S. combat and reconstruction aid, the Afghan government remains dysfunctional and divided, the Taliban are more widespread and powerful than at any time since 2001, and al-Qaeda and the Islamic State linger. The many individual and local success stories are not enough to blunt the larger strategic failure.

In the summer of 2014, reports that the Islamic State had taken control of Mosul, Iraq, served as a similarly tragic rejoinder to the 11-year, U.S. $1 trillion USD combat and reconstruction effort in the country. Despite a year of airstrikes and billions of additional dollars dedicated to retraining the Iraqi army, the government in Baghdad remains dysfunctional, the Islamic State is more powerful than at any time since its founding in 2004, and militias have control over more territory than the military and security forces.

The failures to fix all that was broken in Afghanistan and Iraq—mostly by external powers and exacerbated by persistent and toxic internal divisions—should serve as a worrying sign of what is to come in Syria. The arguments over how to resolve the civil war—seen in stark display at the United Nation’s General Assembly (UNGA) this week in New York—obscure the horrifying task that awaits Syria and the international community once the fighting subsides to ‘tolerable’ levels.

Rival regional powers have aggravated and extended the ongoing conflict in Syria; the country’s reconstruction will face the same challenge. As in Afghanistan and Iraq, the abatement of fighting in Syria would not mean the disappearance of polarizing forces and regional machinations. As with Afghanistan and Iraq, bordering countries will serve as safe havens for proxy fighters who may not be able to win the war, but can certainly ensure that no one wins the peace.

Even if a political solution materializes and the international community agrees on a way to move forward towards a peaceful resolution in Syria, the internal chaos and destruction in the country is staggering, and will require considerable levels of assistance from an international community already burdened with the failures of current and past reconstruction efforts. There will be nowhere near the level of resources available to Syria that the United States dedicated to Afghanistan and Iraq. Clearly, however, substantial resources do not necessarily result in positive and lasting change. Securing and dispersing the funding needed for the countless reconstruction projects—from the massive to the small-scale—will likely be an enduring challenge.

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