Veteran Compares Iraq, Afghan Wars

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Sen. John McCain wants the strategy used in Iraq to be applied in Afghanistan. Nathaniel C. Fick, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, has served with the Marines in both countries. He says lessons from Iraq cannot be applied blindly in Afghanistan.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

This week, the presidential candidates have been laying out their strategies for Iraq and Afghanistan. Both John McCain and Barack Obama call for increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, but Senator McCain asserts the best way to turn around the situation in Afghanistan is by using the experience in Iraq as a blueprint.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): Senator Obama will tell you we can't win in Afghanistan without losing in Iraq. In fact, he has it exactly backwards. It is precisely the success of the surge in Iraq that shows us the way to succeed in Afghanistan.

(Soundbite of applause)

It's by applying the tried and true principles of counterinsurgency used in the surge, which Senator Obama opposed, that we will win in Afghanistan.

NORRIS: We were curious about John McCain's premise that applying the lessons of Iraq could lead to victory in Afghanistan, so we turn now to someone who has served on both fronts. Nathaniel Fick is a former Marine Corps reconnaissance officer who's now a fellow with the Center for a New American Security. He's also the author of "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer" and he joins us now in our studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. NATHANIEL FICK (Fellow, Center for a New American Security): Pleased to be here. Thank you.

NORRIS: So John McCain is saying that the so-called surge in Iraq provides a blueprint for success in Afghanistan. You've seen both theaters; based on your experience, is this an accurate statement?

Mr. FICK: I think there are lessons to be learned in Iraq that we can apply in Afghanistan, but we can't apply them blindly. And I would agree with Senator McCain that Afghanistan has been an underresourced war from the start. We do need more troops in Afghanistan, but we need much more than that. So that's one piece of the puzzle.

NORRIS: But he's not just telling - talking about increasing troop levels, he's talking about using the same strategies that they've used in Al Anbar province, for instance, and applying that, that same strategy in Afghanistan. Will that work? A very different place, very different…

Mr. FICK: Absolutely different. And let's talk a bit about the similarities and then we can talk about the differences. I think that there were lessons learned in Iraq, or I should say relearned in Iraq, that apply generally across counterinsurgency campaigns. And if we can, I'd like to go through four of them.

NORRIS: Sure.

Mr. FICK: The first is that the best weapons don't shoot. These are wars where you sometimes do more by - more through strength than through force. There are places in Afghanistan and in Iraq where a road or a school or a well can do a lot more to help win the war than another platoon or company of soldiers.

The second is that the more you protect your force, sometimes ironically, the less effective you are. By retreating behind blast walls on big bases, by not getting out and mingling with the population, we actually make it harder to win.

Third, I think that sometimes the more force you use, the less effective you can be. And in Afghanistan in 2005, for instance, the U.S. coordinated about 175 air strikes in support of troops on the ground. In 2007, two years later, that number rose to 3,500 so 175 to 3,500 over a period of two years. With that increased application of heavy firepower, you have correspondingly higher civilian casualties. What that does is undermine the legitimacy of the coalition on the ground in Afghanistan and undermine the legitimacy of the Karzai government that authorizes their presence.

Fourth, tactical success in a vacuum means nothing, and this has been said many times before. We can win every battle and lose the war. So those four lessons that we've relearned in Iraq, having previously learned them in places like Vietnam and Malaya, do apply in Afghanistan, but there are also some fundamental differences.

NORRIS: Mr. Fick, when you talk about increasing non-military assistance like efforts to go after people's hearts and minds, will those same things work in Afghanistan where the warlords have such a lock on authority and there's so much fear of stepping out and perhaps being in - working cooperatively with the U.S. in any way?

Mr. FICK: If we estimate that there are 30 or 40,000 active insurgents, about 10 percent of them most military estimates identify as the true hardcore guerillas, the full-time fighters. The rest are part-timers who, when the full-time insurgents come into their valley, they come from their fields, they pick up their arms and they fight. And then when the full-timers move on, they go back to life as normal.

So that 90 percent can probably be co-opted, but if we freeze them out forever, they're going to keep fighting. There has to be a process for reconciliation, at least for the 80 or 90 percent who aren't dedicated, hardcore, full-time guerillas.

NORRIS: You know, you talk about the differences in the two countries and the lessons learned. What are the primary differences in dealing with the counterinsurgency and the militia in Iraq and dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan? Very different from line of authority, very different tactics, guerilla tactics used on the ground - what are the key differences there?

Mr. FICK: Iraq is primarily an urban insurgency. It's sectarian based, and it's primarily internal to Iraq. Afghanistan, on the other hand, is primarily rural. It's centered in one ethnic group, the Pashtun, in the south and the east. And there's the huge external variable of Pakistan. So one of the issues, I think, that cuts across all of these is poppy, and the issue of poppy cultivation is something that we don't have to deal with in Iraq.

NORRIS: The heroin trade.

Mr. FICK: Yes. And when the U.S. and the coalition in Afghanistan, when we define our strategy, we talk about three lines of operations - security, good governance, and economic reconstruction. Poppy undercuts all three because the insurgents, the Taliban, probably get about 40 percent of their financial revenue from the poppy trade.

We're treating counterinsurgency in Afghanistan as discrete from the counterterrorism mission that is going after al-Qaida's senior leadership, say, as discrete from the counter-narcotics mission. In fact, these are three strands of the same rope. And if, for instance, we go into an area and we eradicate the poppy crop without applying the principles of counterinsurgency and providing true alternative livelihoods and protecting the people from retribution from the Taliban after that crop is destroyed, then I would argue that we've actually taken a step backward.

NORRIS: Is there a sense, within the military, a desire for the U.S. to pursue the kind of strategy that they used in Al Anbar in Afghanistan? Is that something that forces on the ground there are wanting to see?

Mr. FICK: I think forces on the ground in Afghanistan want to see any political arrangement that results in the breathing space that we now have in Anbar to put the pieces in place for some enduring solution. Anytime you're not shooting and you're talking instead, that's something the military's going to support.

NORRIS: Nathaniel Fick, thanks for coming in to talk to us.

Mr. FICK: It's a pleasure, thank you.

NORRIS: Nathaniel Fick is a former Marine Corps reconnaissance officer who is now with the Center for a New American Security. He's also the author of "One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer."

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