Biden Was Right on Iraq and Afghanistan--and More

The media's reports on Vice President Joe Biden's possible presidential campaign have focused on his personal attributes--his tragedies, gaffes, charm, warmth, age, and even his odd habit of giving unexpected backrubs to startled public officials. Instead of focusing on these traits, the media should pay more attention to Biden's policy positions. At least regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, heeding Biden's council would have spared us a lot of grief.

After the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, the Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, J. Paul Bremer, decided to form a highly centralized government, which Bremer assumed would make it possible for him to run Iraq from Baghdad. He naïvely believed that he could turn Iraq not only into a stable state, but also into a blooming democracy. By contrast, Biden strongly advocated a relatively weak government "based upon the principles of federalism" and with strong Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish regional administrations. In 2007, Biden introduced a bill to this effect in the Senate, and although the bill passed 75 to 23, it was ignored. (Full disclosure: At the time, I ran a symposium on the Hill in collaboration with Biden's staff to examine this idea and found that my colleagues strongly favored it.)

Biden's approach to governing Iraq had--and has--much promise because it is grounded in several of Iraq's sociological and historical realities. First, most citizens' loyalty to their confessional and ethnic communities was much greater than their commitment to the Iraqi nation. Second, the small Sunni minority historically suppressed and abused the Shiite majority. Now, a centralized, democratic model meant ipso facto creating a tyranny of the majority--one that turned out to be very vengeful. The Shiite-dominated government has increasingly used the Iraqi police and security forces to deprive Sunnis of their property or, even, as death squads. Had the Sunnis been granted considerable autonomy in Sunni-majority provinces, they would have been much better equipped to self-govern and to protect themselves from retaliatory abuse. And, less inclined to support either the insurgency or ISIS.

The best evidence for this argument is that, unlike the Sunnis, the Kurds were granted a measure of autonomy under the new government, including their own militia. Consequently, Iraq's majority-Kurdish regions were the only ones without anti-American insurgencies, and they have had few American or Iraqi casualties in the 12 years since the United States invaded Iraq. Moreover, the Kurds have fielded highly effective anti-ISIS forces.

Biden likewise repeatedly argued that nation-building in a country such as Afghanistan was a hopeless endeavor. He pointed out that the Taliban did not threaten the United States; al Qaeda did. Because the United States could defeat al Qaeda with a small number of Special Operations troops on the ground, in cooperation with local groups and supported by a drone campaign from the air, Biden opposed the surge.

True, we will never know for sure what would have happened in Afghanistan had the United States followed Biden's "boots off the ground" strategy. However, the United States quickly defeated the Taliban with a similar approach during the initial American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Local groups, particularly the Northern Alliance, carried out the main fighting, and the United States aided them with American firepower, air support, and CIA operatives. In the years that followed, it became clear that large, conventional American forces were unsuited to war against insurgents who, unlike conventional military forces, wear civilian clothing, use civilian homes as operating bases, and do not respect international borders. In contrast, nation-building that followed, and entailed large number of boots on the ground, accomplished very little.

Western policymakers tend to think of nations as solid communities. Most states in the Middle East, though, are artifacts created with the stroke of a pen by the powers that won World War I. Great Britain and France drew territorial boundaries that paid little heed to ethnic, religious, and communal allegiances--and differences. These profound divisions make governing the states that originated in these territorial divisions exceedingly difficult. Biden's sociological logic, which if followed would have improved the outcomes in Iraq and Afghanistan, has major implications for Syria and Libya, as well. Hopefully, the media will offer Biden's policy suggestions at least as much attention and airtime as his personality quirks.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and the author of Security First and most recently Privacy in the Cyber Age. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. To subscribe to his monthly newsletter, send an e-mail to icps@gwu.edu.