The security legacy the US and its allies leave behind after their forces pull out of the two countries could have far-reaching consequences.
Security in Iraq and Afghanistan still bleak
WASHINGTON // An Afghan soldier turns his weapon on US troops, killing two of them. Iraqi soldiers storm a church taken over by Islamist gunmen and 52 are killed. A squad of Afghan police is reported to have switched sides to the Taliban. And in Baghdad, security forces arrest two journalists and shut down a TV station.
That snapshot of last month's news from Iraq and Afghanistan paints a bleak picture of America's security allies, even as US officials insist that the capabilities of both Iraqi and Afghan security forces are improving. They will have to do so. The security legacy the US and its allies leave behind after their forces pull out of the two countries could have far-reaching consequences.
In Afghanistan, Nato forces in November began handing over military bases to local forces, a sign, said the US military, of the Afghans' growing competence. But, such handovers have had a mixed record in Iraq, where the process is well under way, with looting and corruption undermining rank-and-file confidence and ruining once-efficient military bases.
"There are problems [in Iraq]: the selling, looting and dismantling of equipment and so on," said Charles Dunne, of the Middle East Institute, who from 2005 to 2007 was the director for Iraq at the National Security Council in the previous administration.
"I don't think it's widespread enough to threaten the unity of the security forces. Having said that, Iraq ranks as one of the most corrupt countries… and why should the security forces be any different?"
If corruption hurts the performance of security services, the two countries would certainly appear in trouble. Afghanistan scores just below Iraq in Transparency International's 2010 survey of 178 countries, in which the two rank higher than only Myanmar and Somalia.
But the size, capability and unity of the security forces are of primary importance to Washington. The US military pointed to growing recruitment and retention in both countries as a positive sign. In response to an email inquiry, the US Forces in Iraq said the "Iraqi Security Forces are professional and dedicated to protecting the Iraqi people. USF-I [United States Forces - Iraq] continues to advise, assist, train and equip the Iraqi Security Forces to provide external defence and internal security".
The training of local security forces is a crucial part of the Obama administration's plans to withdraw all US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 and begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July 2011, a process that is slated to end in 2014. The eventual ability of local forces to maintain security in the two countries is how success or failure to a large extent will be judged.
Mr Obama met with his top national security advisers on Monday to review Afghanistan strategy. The result of this strategy review, compiled by the National Security Council, is to be announced on Thursday, but is unlikely to contain many surprises.
Crucial in that review will be the opinion of Robert Gates, the US secretary of defence, who has just returned from a trip to Afghanistan. There he met Afghan leaders, including Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, and US military on the ground in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, where he received briefings on operations in eastern and southern Afghanistan.
"I think we have made more progress in Kandahar faster than I expected," Mr Gates told reporters on his way back on Saturday. "They have moved in that area much more rapidly than I had anticipated."
But the sustainability of any progress made by international troops hinges on the readiness of Afghan forces to eventually take over.
"So much of the pull-out has been predicated on the idea that the security forces are going to be stepping up," said Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence Research at the US State Department. "Quantitatively they are moving in the right direction [in Afghanistan], but we hear all kinds of reports that with hardly any exception, they are not ready to take on independent operations."
Leaving behind security chaos in one or both countries, said Mr Weinbaum, would be a "wonderful selling point for international terrorist organisations", and could damage America's reputation as a strategic partner in India and the Gulf.
And while the situation is more stable in Iraq, it remains contingent on a complex political situation that has yet to pan out, and the deadline to form a ruling government coalition draws ever nearer.
There was also a sense of US complacency, said Mr Dunne. To some extent, Americans, from the administration down, have already "checked out" of Iraq, he said.
"I don't know if they are looking to build a legacy. That's the impression you get when you look at the administration's overall policy."
The consequences for future military interventions are significant. Mr Weinbaum suggested that Nato "may never again intervene outside Europe" and that, "win or lose [in Afghanistan], success or no success, it's going to be virtually impossible to get this kind of coalition together in the future".
Mr Dunne said that even if the US could point to a list of achievements in a relatively stable Iraq after a withdrawal, any massive American military involvement, absent a huge provocation in the region, was going to be "very difficult to do for many, many years".
Should Iraq dissolve into civil war, "it would have an even more profound effect", he said.