While there are differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, there is also a significant similarity with regard to America’s involvement – and, more importantly, what our policy should be in the future.

With the approval of Congress, President George W. Bush sent the U.S. military into both countries after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

One difference between the two situations: The mastermind of the attack on America was being sheltered in Afghanistan, while – despite the evidence presented by Vice President Dick Cheney’s faction – no connection was documented between the Iraqis and any terrorism directed against us. This is why I voted against the Iraq War but in favor of the one in Afghanistan.

In both cases, American military power overthrew the oppressors’ regimes, and our intervention brought about the death of the two leading villains, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. But in neither case did that result in an end to the fighting.

In both countries, the regimes we put in place were originally hailed as our reliable allies, but then became part of the problem.

Inheriting both wars, President Obama made clear his intention to withdraw American military forces. He did so in Iraq at the end of 2011, and he recently announced his intention to do the same in Afghanistan 2½ years from now. The justification for both withdrawals is that American military power accomplished the stated objectives in the beginning of these wars.

In both countries, hostile, repressive regimes were replaced by governments committed to cooperation with the U.S.

Again in both cases, Obama’s political opponents, largely on the Republican side, have been sharply critical of the president’s decisions. In parallel arguments, they now call for the re-entry of military force into Iraq, and urge the president to rescind his announcement that we will withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of 2016.

They are wrong in both cases.

The threshold question that critics like Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., both studiously avoid is how to pay for this.

When Bush took office, then-Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan warned both the president and Congress that we were in danger of paying down the national debt to the point where his ability to conduct monetary policy would be weakened. Within a few short years, the trend was reversed, thanks to a combination of two wars and several tax cuts.

Republicans insist that deficit reduction should be our highest priority, and on behalf of that goal, they have opposed extending unemployment compensation; have cut aid to state and local governments; have resisted replenishing the Highway Trust Fund so we can do necessary repairs on our aging infrastructure; and have cited a need to cut back on Social Security benefits in some way and on Medicare.

But none of these savings, all of which involve at great social cost in our country, outweigh the great increase in expenditure that will result if we follow their policy of indefinite military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The McCain-Graham position – supported by many in the Bush administration who were responsible for the greatest policy mistake in American history – requires an open-ended, significant military presence in both countries, costing tens of billions of dollars a year.

The president’s proposed Afghanistan withdrawal date is 13 years after that war started (and two years later than it should be). His critics argue that unless we stay there, the anti-Taliban forces will lose control of the country.

In Iraq, the recent surge by Sunni opponents of the Shiite government has been taken by the advocates of American involvement there as a refutation of a presidential decision. True. But they have the wrong president. The Sunni surge is a confirmation that Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was the biggest single mistake ever made by the American government.

If the governments we’ve been supporting in both Iraq and Afghanistan are unable to sustain themselves after years of American military support, costing of more than a trillion dollars, thousands of lost American lives, tens of thousands of grievously injured Americans and hundreds of billions more in non-military economic assistance, what reason is there to think that two, three, six or 10 more years of this American presence will change things?

The president’s critics are arguing for an indefinite, large military presence in both countries.

They believe it is in our national interest to sustain order everywhere in the world, and that we will suffer great harm if our efforts are not successful. We heard exactly that argument 40 years ago about Indochina. It is relevant to note that although we had been told that the loss of Vietnam would be a terrible blow to America’s role in the world, Vietnam is now a de facto American ally in confronting China.

We do have a national interest in combating the export of terrorism, but the argument that we must do that by maintaining territorial control in Iraq and Afghanistan is flawed.

Terrorists have already established bases elsewhere. The argument that America must use its military power to prevent the establishment of a terrorist foothold anywhere in the world sets forth an absolutely impossible task. Even if we were to succeed in abolishing any use of Afghanistan as a base for al-Qaida, there are literally a dozen other countries in the world where they have already established a presence.

I support our right of self-defense, including the use of force to kill those who threaten us, but making sure that terrorists have no base in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Mali, Yemen, etc., is beyond our capacity.

There is a nation that is immediately threatened by the Sunni surge in Iraq, but it is Iran, not the United States. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been a far greater friend to Iran than he has been to the United States, and his Sunni opponents threaten Iran more than the U.S.

Sadly, spreading throughout the Arab world is a civil war among Muslims, pitting Shiites against Sunnis in a terrible pattern of violence.

Those to whom there appears to be a simple case for American intervention gloss over that central fact. They are for American military help to the Sunni opponents of the Shiite regime in Syria, while calling for us to back the Shiite government in Iraq against its Sunni opponents.

This civil war aligns the Bashar Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the al-Maliki government in Iraq and the Iranians against President Assad’s opposition, the Sunni insurgency in Iraq and Saudi Arabia. (Among the few happy casualties of this war is the alliance between the Sunni Hamas and the Shiite Hezbollah.)

Iran’s troubles will be compounded by any Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan. The Shiite regime in Iran has long been hostile to the Sunni Taliban, and Sunni control of northern Iraq and greater Taliban influence in Afghanistan leave Iran confronting hostile forces on two of its borders.

I very much regret that this conflict is wreaking so much havoc and that so many lives are being lost to this religious war. But America did not cause the conflict, and I do not understand how people think it is within America’s power to end it.

Fortunately, there is no compelling American self-interest that demands that we do so. Assad’s rule in Syria has been bad for the Syrian people. Saddam’s dictatorship was even worse for the Iraqis. But neither Iraq before our invasion nor Syria before the rebellion was a source of any damage to the United States. Nor was either country a cause of serious danger to any of our regional allies.

I now believe I was wrong in voting against President George H.W. Bush’s request for support of the expulsion of Iraq from Kuwait. But since that was accomplished, the only Middle Eastern nation threatened by Saddam Hussein was Iran.

The argument that we should use military force to overthrow oppressive governments in the absence of externally aggressive behavior on their parts calls for a constant series of global interventions far beyond our ability either to afford or accomplish. The younger Bush recognized this during his first 10 months in office, when the U.S. made no effort to overthrow the Taliban’s oppressive governance of Afghanistan. Only when it sheltered a mass murderer of Americans did we invade.

The final similarity that links Iraq and Afghanistan is that in neither case have Obama’s critics proposed any coherent strategy other than an indefinite, expensive continued American military involvement – one that offers no prospect that many more years of an American military presence will lead to any significant resolution of the deep internal divisions that plague both nations.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

– Special to the Telegram