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U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan
Mesrob George Vartavarian. (Photo: Jas Kirt/ UCLA.)

U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan

American support of local tribes and militias in both states has complicated the consolidation of central governments.

UCLA International Institute, May 18, 2015 — At a recent event hosted in late April by the Asia Institute and Program on Central Asia, Mesrob George Vartavarian of the University of Southern California argued that U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have empowered local actors at the expense of state institutions. The United States, he contended, has supported “a variety of armed formations outside of state control.”

The U.S. began justifying military intervention and the establishment of additional military bases abroad as a defense against the communist threat during the Cold War. During the Cold War period, said the speaker, former President John F. Kennedy authorized 163 covert actions to “topple unfavorable governments” and replace them with governments and institutions more amenable to American geopolitical interests. In essence, this meant supporting local forces against these regimes and using military force when necessary.

Vartavarian argued that there was a “fundamental shift” in the modes of American imperial intervention in the late 1970s, when the United States began to facilitate and organize insurgencies against regimes it considered unfavorable to its interests, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The case of Afghanistan

Following the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the U.S. government chose to support “entities and interests that stood outside formal state institutions,” remarked the speaker. That is, it began supporting and training anti-Soviet militias and warlords in Afghanistan, utilizing the Pakistani military and intelligence services to “funnel in money and aid to groups and institutions that [the United States] viewed as favorable.”

The Afghan political landscape changed drastically following the Soviet war. The Soviet invasion displaced regional strongmen associated with the pre-invasion Kabul regime, replacing them with young military commanders who controlled local militias. These anti-Soviet local commanders had no ties to the central government because the central government was a Soviet-supported puppet state, and because most battles with Soviet forces took place locally. As a result, the state’s authority over coercive force devolved to lower levels.

American intervention in Afghanistan thus “empowered provinces more than centers,” argued Vartavarian. Although helpful in overcoming the Soviet Army and later, the Taliban, this tactic has had serious drawbacks. According to some scholars, the Kabul regime and the international community now view these local warlords as obstacles to a consolidated and unitary Afghan state, noted the speaker.

The case of Iraq

During the Gulf War of 1990–91, the United States pursued international sanctions and a massive military intervention in Kuwait following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of that country. After its Army was forced out of Kuwait, the Iraqi government began to hire out and devolve state functions — most notably, security functions — to tribes and clan elders in its provinces. Local tribal communities were consequently able to use military force to resolve their own personal feuds.

Given this earlier decentralization, the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 “was not the catalyst for Iraqi collapse, but the final blow,” contended Vartavarian. Immediately after the invasion, the Coalition Provisional Authority under the leadership of Paul Bremer began to de-Ba’athify the military and political structures of Iraq, removing Ba’ath Party officials from power and disbanding the Iraqi army.

The Iraqi population was already dangerously fragmented, heavily armed and outside of state control by this time. These factors, coupled with the de-Ba’athification policy and the ability of al-Qaeda in Iraq to foment sectarian conflict, greatly contributed to the ensuing wide-ranging insurgency.

American military forces originally relied on a policy of “search and destroy” to find and destroy insurgent formations during the period that followed the U.S. invasion. U.S. Special Forces, for example, conducted aggressive raids that removed the top leadership of al-Qaeda in Iraq. However, this strategy further fragmented terrorist organizations in the country, which became more difficult to control and engage as a result.

Eventually, the United States began to work with Sunni tribes, strongmen and militias, in a coalition called the Anbar Awakening, to contain the insurgency and quell al-Qaeda in Iraq. Thus by the time U.S. troops left Iraq in 2011, the country was in a fractious state.

A shared legacy

The United States subsidized and protected local entities to pursue its goals in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases, the localities associated themselves with the American military in support of their own goals, but were reluctant to align themselves with their respective central governments because the latter could not protect them. (In the case of Iraq, moreover, the central government actively sought to diminish the influence of Sunni tribes and regions).

By supporting local tribes and militias, American intervention has made it more difficult for both states to consolidate a central government. Contrary to its own interests and intentions, concluded Vartavarian, the United States “has empowered [fracturing] entities that will be very difficult to bring to heel in the near future.”