Page last updated at 18:43 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 19:43 UK

Afghan lessons from Iraq 'success'

By Andrew North
BBC News, Baghdad

US Marine walks past locals in Helmand province, Afghanistan (17 August 2009)
There are hopes an Iraq-style troop surge will work in Afghanistan

The rising deaths among US, British and other foreign troops in Afghanistan are the unavoidable result, commanders and politicians say, of the renewed effort to turn things round in what was the original post 9/11 war.

The language has all changed. Now, Afghanistan is called the "war of necessity", Iraq "the war of choice".

There has been lots of talk of new policies and tactics, and learning from "successes" in Iraq.

It is a well-established pattern, of ideas being recycled between the two wars, going back to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

But are the lessons from Iraq so positive for Afghanistan now?

Even some of those fighting there today are unsure of the reasons why.

"The Iraq war was different from this war," a US marine in Afghanistan's Helmand province told a BBC reporter recently.

In larger and more rural Afghanistan, it is that much harder to control territory and influence the mood

"That was definitely a war on terrorism. Here I don't know. No-one even mentions 9/11 any more. That's why I went to Iraq."

Yet there is hope the Taliban in Afghanistan will be beaten by another Iraq-style "surge" of US and foreign troops - although American commanders are shy of the comparison to Iraq.

With more boots on the ground, US and Nato forces, goes the thinking, will be better able to hold ground and protect the population.

US President Barack Obama may order thousands more troops in later this year, so the Afghan surge could turn out to be even larger than the 30,000 reinforcements President George W Bush sent to Iraq in 2007.

Mood change

Yet there has been plenty of misunderstanding about what happened in Iraq two years ago.

Even many US officers now admit that the importance of the surge was as much symbolic as military, demonstrating to insurgents that the Americans were not about to leave.

Although many Americans may want to call it a success, few Iraqis use that term

That was significant, but the key change was what happened before the surge was even announced - the decision by many Sunni Iraqis to turn against al-Qaeda.

Without that transformation, the war in Iraq could have got even worse.

So far, there is no sign of that kind of change in mood in the Taliban's heartland areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

Commanders may answer that is because they still need more troops to be able to keep insurgents from returning to areas they have taken.

But 30,000 extra troops was very little for a country the size of Iraq, and one with better roads and more people living in towns and cities. If the mood had still been against them, it is unlikely that would have been a sufficient force.

In larger and more rural Afghanistan, it is that much harder to control territory and influence the mood - as the Russians found in the 1980s, with many more soldiers.

Casualties rise

Scene of a blast in Baghdad (19 August 2009)
Deadly attacks are still a regular occurrence in Iraq

What is more, although many Americans may want to call it a success, few Iraqis use that term to describe the state of their country two years after the Bush surge.

There may be less bloodshed than before, but there are still attacks in Iraq every day.

In the first six months of this year, more than 2,000 Iraqi civilians died in violence, over double the number in Afghanistan in the same period.

And the casualty rate in Iraq has risen again in recent weeks because of an increase in attacks since the US pullout from the cities.

More than 100 people were killed in mass bombings in central Baghdad last week.

The US-trained Iraqi security forces now in charge in Baghdad are taking much of the blame for allowing the bombers to get through.

That is the plan in Afghanistan too, that Afghan security forces will take over from foreign troops.

But the end result may be a lot messier and unhappy than anyone wants to admit.

Casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan 2009
Civillian Military
Afghanistan Iraq Afghanistan Iraq
January 127 276 25 16
February 149 343 24 18
March 134 414 28 9
April 129 484 14 19
May 261 332 27 25
June 213 258 38 15
July - - 76 8
August - - 59 5
Total 1013 2107 291 115

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