The conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq have to a degree been overshadowed in 2011 by events elsewhere in the "greater middle east”. Yet each has continued, albeit with different rhythms. The persistent violence and the broader impact of the wars on American society ensure that they, and the US's foreign entanglements more broadly, will play an important part in the presidential-election campaign of 2012. But what will the wars’ political influence be, and will this in the end favour bringing the era of war to an end or extending it into another decade?
The context of the choice is the election campaign of 2008, when Barack Obama owed his victory in part to the fact that he articulated a policy over Afghanistan and Iraq that reflected the public opinion of the American majority.
The consensus view at the time was that Iraq was a "bad war". It had been started by the George W Bush administration, justified by fraudulent reference to the 9/11 attacks, involved 150,000 troops and untold casualties; after almost six years of an unwinnable war, it was time to get out. Yet in formulating his Iraq policy, Obama was aided by the apparent success of the “surge” of US forces ordered by Bush in early 2007; this provided the new president with a reasonable assurance that he could make substantial withdrawals early in his term.
By contrast, Afghanistan was still considered and could be represented as a "good war". It had been started a month after 9/11 and, since the Taliban were playing host to the al-Qaida movement at the time, this direct link provided justification for continuing the war even after seven years of at best uncertain progress.
Yet in relation to Afghanistan, there was an important difference in the proposed approach of the rival candidates in 2008. John McCain’s view was that (following the Iraq precedent) a major surge of troops into the country was needed in pursuit of a comprehensive defeat of the Taliban. Obama also endorsed an increased commitment, and once elected initiated the surge - though his strategic thinking was more convoluted. He had come to consider the war unwinnable, so rather than expecting to destroy the Taliban sought the lesser objective of establishing a position of military superiority and then negotiating a way out.
The Afghan outcome
In recent months even this more limited objective has retreated further from view. The Taliban and other armed opposition groups have in this period avoided major conflicts with US forces in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, opting instead to assassinate government officials and politicians and to conduct more open attacks elsewhere. Even so, US forces are suffering casualties, among the more serious being in a helicopter crash on 6 August when thirty Americans (several of them members of special forces involved in the killing of Osama bin Laden) died along with seven Afghans in Wardak province while on their way to assist an anti-Taliban fight.
A single day’s incidents, on 16 August, saw a development worker, Rabia Sadat, killed when leaving her home in Kandahar to work on a western-funded project; the death of seven people in the bombing of a market in Uruzgan province; and, in Pakistan's Muzaffargarh province, another attack on fuel-tankers destroyed six trucks (see "Six NATO oil tankers set ablaze in Pakistan", RTT News, 16 August 2011).
The continuing violence does not guarantee that the Pentagon will change the policy of progressive troop-withdrawals, which the White House is anxious to maintain as the re-election campaign for 2012 gathers momentum (see "America and Afghanistan: politics in charge", 14 July 2011).
In any event, it now looks as though the Taliban and other militias will have a major role in post-occupation Afghanistan. This outcome, set against the original plan to establish a pro-western developing state where US influence would provide Washington with a springboard to greater influence in central Asia, is wholly negative. In terms of its original aims, the war is lost.
The Iraqi endgame
The Obama administration recognises this discrete reality, and if re-elected could even live with it. What makes the fate of the Afghan effort much more problematic is the conjunction with the upsurge of violence in Iraq.
The morning of 15 August 2011 heralded the worst day in Iraq for many months. A series of forty-two coordinated bomb-attacks across the country killed eighty-nine people and wounded over 300. The perpetrators appear to be groups allied to “al-Qaida in Mesopotamia” that have reformed and been strengthened; but the escalation is gradual rather than sudden, for there has been an average of fourteen attacks each day in 2011 (see Michael S Schmidt, “Threat Resurges in Deadliest Day of Year for Iraq”, New York Times, 15 August 2011).
The attacks are directed mainly at the majority Shi'a community rather than US troops. This highlights the complexity of the situation in Iraq, since it is Shi'a militia - some of them reportedly backed by Iran - that the Pentagon sees as the major threat to its forces; fifteen US troops were killed in June 2011, the highest number since June 2009 (see Jessica Rettig, “U.S. Troops Withdrawal Rests on Decision From Iraq”, US News, 3 August 2011).
The United States still has some 46,000 troops in Iraq. The plan was to withdraw them by the end of 2011, although this stated ambition was always misleading in the sense that (although most would indeed have left the country) many thousands would remain in place to secure US facilities and perform training duties. Now, it is highly likely that many will stay in a more formal capacity to aid the Iraqi government; an outcome likely to result in more conflict and an increase in Iranian influence in Iraq (see "America and Iraq-Iran: a new balance", 10 June 2011).
The war in Iraq has overturned initial expectations as much as that in Afghanistan; the expected pro-western free-market state with a major US military presence constraining Iran has not materialised. In terms of its original objectives, this war too is lost.
The American prospect
The way the realities of Afghanistan and Iraq are translated into political pressures on Obama in the domestic arena are relevant to his chances of re-election. There is a paradox here, in that the contradictory views of defence and security policy among his opponents are acting to weaken rather than strengthen the president’s position.
The Tea Party tendency espouses a degree of isolationism (so criticises the administration for foreign adventurism) yet wants a strong America (so also decries any indication of the US’s external weakness). A different faction of the president’s critics takes a clearer line in arguing strongly for the protection of current defence budgets, notwithstanding these are among the highest since 1950 (see John Bolton, “We Must Stop the 2012 Defense Budget Train Wreck”, FoxNews, 16 August 2011).
The risk Obama faces is that he will be assailed on all fronts - for prolonging foreign entanglements and seeking to cut them, for maintaining overseas defence commitments and neglecting to support US forces sufficiently. Even though the problems in Afghanistan and Iraq actually stem from the toxic legacy of his predecessor, it will be tough for Obama to create space for a convincing position on the American role in these conflicts.
A column in this series published more than eight years ago suggested that if the idea of the “new American century” retained its legitimacy, then a very long conflict was in prospect. It went on to propose: “If, by contrast, a saner approach to international security develops, the beginnings of a peaceful order could be shaped” (see “A thirty-year war”, 3 April 2003).
The second decade of that projected three-decade war is approaching. The violent, divisive events of the first have worn the gloss from the ideal of the “new American century” - but in practice it persists, and that hoped-for “saner approach” is far from replacing it. It might just be, though there are no assurances, that a second term for Barack Obama could see a more thoughtful worldview emerge. But if a Republican makes it to the White House in 2012, the more certain and grim prospect is many more years of war.