The Obama administration has been trying to defend its proposed escalation in Afghanistan by pointing out its similarities to the “surge” in Iraq. But the comparison is largely false. The president’s plan has only a few superficial similarities to the Iraq plan and many more significant differences—including much higher risk. 

As with the Iraq surge, Obama is sending additional forces to the theater and employing improved counterinsurgency tactics. Also as in Iraq, those additional forces will be inserted for a limited, predetermined period. But in Iraq, the surge brigades, which began deployment in January 2007, were all gone by midsummer of 2008. In Afghanistan, the additional 30,000 troops will only begin to be removed in July 2011 and, as Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made clear, their departure will be contingent on security conditions.

The Iraq surge contributed to improved security, though it could not possibly achieve its stated goal, which was the reconciliation of bitter Iraqi political divisions. The real political goal of the Iraq surge was to reduce violence in that country to a point where it was no longer a daily source of headlines in the U.S. This the Bush administration achieved, softening domestic opposition and making it easier for members of Congress to perpetuate a military presence there.

In contrast, violence, along with U.S. casualties, will increase in Afghanistan in the near term as U.S. forces move deeper into areas controlled by Taliban militias. Despite the expected spike in violence, the goal of improved security—and of an eventual reduction in violence among civilians—will likely be reached. The political consequences will be the gradual extension of Kabul’s authority and a reduction in the numbers of “accidental guerrillas” drawn into the fighting. This will help mitigate hostility to Hamid Karzai’s government without necessarily reconciling deeply antagonistic factions.

Obama’s decision is also more dangerous politically than Bush’s surge was. By the time Bush ordered more troops to Iraq, three-quarters of the public had turned against him, freeing him to disregard public opinion about the war. With his approval rating in the ditch, almost any new direction was bound to be seen as an improvement. 

Yet despite the low risk, Bush closely identified the surge with the theater commander, Gen. David Petraeus. Obama, by contrast, has taken personal ownership of the campaign in Afghanistan and will rise or fall on its outcome. Also unlike Bush, Obama had no genuine option to leave. Despite frequent assertions that a U.S withdrawal from Iraq would ignite a regional war, drawing in Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, among others, Iran’s enormous influence with the Nouri al-Maliki government made such a result improbable. In addition, Iraq is ringed on almost every side by U.S. allies and there is a substantial U.S. military presence in the Gulf, which means that upheaval in Iraq could be contained if necessary.

However, the overblown fears of the consequences of a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq are all too real when it comes to Afghanistan, where a near-term departure of U.S. troops would lead to a new round of civil war certain to draw in Afghanistan’s neighbors. The resulting upheaval would threaten the stability of Pakistan, heighten Indo-Pakistani tensions, and invite an escalated proxy war between Iran and Pakistan, which have been battling each other for decades through rival groups. The U.S. presence in Central and South Asia is likely insufficient to contain the effects of state failure or to prevent regional war under such conditions.

The Obama administration will never be able to disentangle U.S. forces from Central Asia until minimal conditions of security for Afghan civilians are met. There is no way to do that without sending additional U.S. and allied forces. Consequently, Obama has chosen the only course of action that is both militarily sound and politically feasible. But the perils of Obama’s surge far exceed those of Bush’s surge in Iraq. He has entered dangerous terrain.