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After Iraq and Afghanistan: Is US power in decline?

Commentary: If history repeats itself, pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan could lead to victory for the US.
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A soldier holds flags at Section 60, an area largely used for those who died while serving in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, at Arlington National Cemetery. (Brendan Smialowski /AFP/Getty Images)

FAIRFAX, Virginia — A general perception has arisen that American power is on the decline. This is largely because, despite enormously expensive military efforts that lasted for many years, the US has been unable to pacify either Iraq or Afghanistan.

Indeed, the growing unpopularity of fighting these wars in America has resulted in US forces leaving Iraq at the end of 2011, and beginning their withdrawal from Afghanistan, which is due to be completed at the end of 2014.

Just as occurred following the US withdrawal from Indochina in 1973, neither the American public nor government seem likely to countenance major military intervention anywhere else any time soon. And just as the Soviets and their allies seized the opportunity to spread Marxist revolution after this earlier US withdrawal, there are now those who can be expected to take advantage of America’s withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan to try to spread their own power and influence.

But does withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan really mean that American power is in decline and that of its adversaries is on the rise?

An unsuccessful military effort raises the question of whether the intervening power is in decline. Withdrawal from an unsuccessful conflict appears to be a definitive answer to that question. But appearances can be deceiving. Following the US withdrawal from Indochina in 1973, the Cubans intervened in Angola in 1975, the Soviets and Cubans together intervened in the Horn of Africa in 1977-78, the Vietnamese intervened in Cambodia in 1978, and the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan in 1979. Especially since the American public and Congress were not willing to countenance US intervention that could lead to “another Vietnam,” a general sense arose that American power was declining and Soviet power was rising.

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Just a few years later, though, it became apparent that the USSR, Cuba, and Vietnam were stuck in quagmires of their own. Between 1988 and 1991, Cuba withdrew from Angola, Vietnam withdrew from Cambodia, and the USSR withdrew not just from Afghanistan, but also from Eastern Europe — and then broke apart. Regarded by many as having entered an irreversible decline just a few years previously, America became universally acknowledged as the winner of the Cold War.

Could something similar happen again after the US withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan? There is definitely reason to think that it could. The perception of a declining America unwilling to intervene will undoubtedly encourage Iran to more openly back its Shiite allies in Iraq and Pakistan to push for the return of its Taliban allies to power in Afghanistan. And Tehran and Islamabad would probably be correct in calculating that the US will not send its troops back to these countries in response.

Nevertheless, any such efforts on their part would meet with stiff resistance locally and regionally. In Iraq, the Arab Sunnis and the Kurds would oppose Iranian encroachment. Many Arab Shiites probably would also. Similarly in Afghanistan, the return to power by the Pushtun-dominated Taliban would be resisted by the non-Pushtuns (Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, etc.) and possibly by many Pushtuns as well. Further, this internal resistance would receive support from nearby states. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other Sunni Arab governments could be expected to support Iraqis resisting their common rival, Iran. Anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan would definitely be supported (as they were prior to 9/11) by Russia and India. And, of course, there is nothing to prevent the US from providing support to these groups either.

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Pessimists worry that despite this, Iran will be able to expand its influence in Iraq, and Pakistan will be able to do so in Afghanistan anyway. But can either of these states really be expected to succeed where the US failed? It seems far more likely that Iran and Pakistan could find themselves in quagmires instead. And with far fewer resources than the US and far more pressing internal economic and political problems, getting stuck in quagmires in neighboring countries could have extremely serious domestic consequences for the Iranian and Pakistani governments.

Just as Iran and Pakistan contributed to America becoming bogged down in quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States — along with many others — have considerable means to make sure that Iran and Pakistan become bogged down in quagmires of their own in these countries if they insist on trying to expand their influence in them.

Mark N. Katz is a professor of government and politics at George Mason University, and is the author of "Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012).

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