COLUMBUS, Ohio — Our withdrawals from Iraq, and now imminently from Afghanistan, are not the reason that we find ourselves dealing with governments in both these countries that are not doing as we think they should.
We are learning the hard lesson that while our military can remove an existing government, we cannot dictate what will replace it. It is a lesson with huge immediate implications, because in recent days we are hearing new rumblings about a possible military intervention in Syria.
In Iraq, President George W. Bush apparently gave little thought to what might replace the government of then leader Saddam Hussein.
In 1991, when his father, President George H.W. Bush attacked Iraq over its occupation of Kuwait, he was urged by some in Congress to expand the operation to attack the capital city, Baghdad, and remove Saddam from power.
Wisely, he knew that such action would open a can of worms. Under Saddam, power rested in the hands of the Sunni community, a minority within Iraq. The majority Shiite community was resentful over its treatment at the hands of Saddam. Removal of Saddam would upset the existing order.
What was not difficult to see in Iraq was the likelihood that any new government in Iraq would be dominated by the majority Shiite community, and that it might redress its grievances in a way that would leave the country in turmoil.
So when we see current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tilting toward the Shiite, that is the result of the dynamic we set up with our invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The Sunni in Iraq are reacting now with violence. Whether we are there with troops or not, that dynamic is playing itself out. Iraq experiences inter-communal violence on a daily basis.
Nor was it difficult to guess that a Shiite-led government in Iraq would be on good terms with the government of Iran, with which we are perennially at odds. So by invading Iraq, we were bolstering support in the region for the government of Iran.
In Afghanistan, we removed a government headed by the Taliban. Afghanistan, as was known at the time, houses a variety of ethnic constituencies. It has no history of a country-wide political order.
Now the warlords who ruled small fiefdoms in Afghanistan are making a comeback. One of them may wind up as the next president in elections to be held soon. We are having trouble convincing Hamid Karzai, the current president, to let our troops remain in some numbers past the end of 2014. We want to keep Afghan courts from having jurisdiction over any offenses that may be committed in the future by US personnel there. Karzai rejects this demand.
In both instances, our initiation of military operations — Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003 — could have been avoided. In Afghanistan, our demand on the Taliban — that it turn over Osama bin Laden and his associates — was not pursued. The Taliban was beginning to respond to our demand, but instead we invaded.
In Iraq, there was even less reason to send our troops. We invaded because, we said, Iraq was preparing mass-destruction weapons to use to attack us. That reason was quickly shown to be implausible.
So in both Afghanistan and Iraq, we took military action that could have been avoided but which had predictable consequences that were negative both for the target country and for ourselves.
And this does not include the thousands killed, maimed, or otherwise wounded among our own forces and among the populations of those countries.
Now we have to live with the political reality in both Iraq and in Afghanistan. We are leaving both countries in shambles. If we don’t like the governments we see, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
John B. Quigley is a professor of law at Ohio State University.