How do you measure the failure of America’s wars of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan? The most basic indicator is the high level of violence and instability that continues even after most U.S. troops have gone home.

Recent reports of increasing casualty rates in Iraq and Afghanistan paint a grim picture of the consequences of U.S. war policies. Americans are no longer dying in large numbers, but fatalities among Iraqis and Afghans are at record levels.

According to Iraqi figures recently cited in the New York Times, more than 15,000 civilians and government security personnel died in Iraq in 2014, making it one of the deadliest years since the 2003 U.S. invasion.

The actual figures in Iraq for 2014 are probably much higher. The usually reliable independent organization Iraq Body Count estimates civilian casualties for last year at 17,000. According to the group, “Current trends are among the most alarming since we began recording civilian casualties in 2003.” The group estimates fatalities among government and insurgent combatants at approximately 30,000. That means the estimated total death toll for Iraq last year was 47,000.

In Afghanistan, official figures indicate that more than 5,000 government security personnel were killed in 2014, the highest level of the 13 year war. Civilian casualties last year were also at the highest level since 2001. According to UN figures, more than 3,100 Afghan civilians died from January through November 2014. Again, actual figures are probably higher, since the official numbers do not include deaths among insurgent forces. The total death toll for Afghanistan last year was probably greater than 10,000.

These figures do not count casualties from the related war in the neighboring border areas of northern Pakistan. Many thousands of civilians, insurgents and Pakistani army troops have died in that war over the years, but reliable figures for the past year are not available.

Decision makers in Washington invaded Iraq and Afghanistan ostensibly to counter terrorist violence and build stability and freedom. Instead they sowed the seeds of rising violence and continuing death and destruction.

This is failure at the most basic human level. U.S. policies sparked a horrific wave of killing that seems to be getting worse.

Criminality In America

The “Torture Report” of the Senate Intelligence Committee shows that the Central Intelligence Agency has engaged in extensive criminality. By committing horrific abuses against illegally detained suspects, the CIA has systematically violated U.S. and international law. By spying upon and impeding the work of Senate investigators, the Agency has subverted the U.S. constitution and the role of Congress in overseeing the federal government.

The latest evidence of CIA criminality comes as no surprise to those who have studied the Agency’s history—detailed in Mark Mazzetti’s recent The Way of the Knife, or Tim Weiner’s magisterial Legacy of Ashes, or in earlier classics like John Marks and Victor Marchetti’s The CIA and the Cult of Intelligence, or Philip Agee’s The Company.

The CIA exists precisely to deceive and engage in illegal activities. For more than six decades the covert operations division of the CIA has overthrown governments, fought secret wars, fomented military coups, assassinated political leaders, destabilized economies, subverted political parties, supported right wing fascists and extremists, and disseminated lies and disinformation all over the world.

In recent years the CIA has conducted more covert operations than at any time in its history, according to Mazzetti. It has been assigned an unprecedented role in conducting military operations—launching drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen and conducting commando raids in several countries. The Agency has become “a killing machine,” in Mazzetti’s words, obsessed with hunting down and killing alleged terrorists.

CIA operations have caused enormous damage to America’s reputation and have undermined U.S. and international security. The latest revelations add to the Agency’s legacy of crime and deceit.

In my view the CIA is a menace to democracy and should be abolished. Perhaps a modest analysis division could be retained, but the entire operations branch should be eliminated.

Of course there is no chance of this happening. Admiral Dennis Blair wanted to impose modest controls on covert operations when he was Director of National Intelligence in the early Obama administration, but the forces of reaction rose up against him and he was promptly cashiered. The current CIA director, John Brennan, advocated that the CIA end its “paramilitary” operations, turning them over to the Defense Department. Congress said no.

Even to suggest the idea of abolishing the CIA will be seen in official Washington as foolish and naïve. It is worth observing nonetheless that the United States and the world would be better off without the CIA.

On Veterans Day this year we witnessed a larger-than-usual outpouring of public respect and praise for veterans. Although I’m a veteran myself I feel uneasy about such displays.

It is certainly appropriate to honor veterans, and to recognize the sacrifices of those who have served in the military—especially if this means more care and support for the many wounded warriors who will face medical and psychological challenges the rest of their lives.

I am troubled, however, by the other part of the Veterans Day message—the notion that we owe our freedom as Americans to those who serve in the military. We see it on bumper stickers: “If you love freedom, thank a vet.” This is a theme that resonates strongly with most Americans.

The role of military service as a bulwark of freedom was true in the days of World War II, when our soldiers fought against Nazism and militarism and helped to liberate much of Europe and East Asia. But does this apply today in reference to military service in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq?

It doesn’t matter, some will say. The soldier answers the call to duty whatever the mission. This is what we honor on Veterans Day. That is true, but it is worth asking nonetheless whether the duty to which our soldiers have been called in recent decades truly advances our national interest.

Exactly how have the recent wars our soldiers have fought helped to make America freer and safer? Vietnam, which ended in failure? Iraq, which was predicated on a lie? Afghanistan, where the Taliban persists? Is our country really better off for having fought these wars?

These military interventions have not produced peace and order, but violence and chaos. In the case of Iraq our invasion and occupation resulted in more virulent forms of jihadi terrorism and insurgency.

This is not to question the bravery and idealism of those who serve. The problem is not with our soldiers and veterans but with political leaders who use the military for dubious purposes, for missions that are unworthy of the heroism of our troops.

So let’s honor our veterans, but let’s also be honest about the battles in which they have been ordered to serve. The best way to honor and respect our troops is not to send them on unnecessary and unwinnable wars.

President Obama claims that the war in Afghanistan is ending, which is partly true for American forces, but for the Afghan people, the fighting continues and is intensifying. In 2013 nearly 3,000 Afghan civilians died, one of the highest totals of the 13-year war. Casualties among Afghan army and police forces are at record levels. So far during the war, more than 13,000 members of the Afghan security forces have lost their lives. Most of these deaths have occurred in the last three years, according to a New York Times analysis.

After 13 years of armed conflict, Afghanistan urgently needs a plan for ending the war and achieving a negotiated political settlement. Instead the United States is planning for what critics have called another decade of war. The recently signed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Washington and Kabul calls for keeping 10,000 U.S. troops and an additional 2,000 NATO troops on the ground in Afghanistan for up to ten years. The mission of these troops will focus on training Afghan security forces, but U.S. troops will also be involved in ‘counterterrorism operations,’ which are commando missions and night raids against alleged terrorists that have aroused resentment among Afghan civilians.

The BSA calls for U.S. forces to have an ‘advising’ role, which means American officers will continue to guide Afghan combat missions. The agreement maintains the U.S. bombing raids and drone strikes that have caused civilian casualties and provided fodder for Taliban recruiters.

Rather than continuing to focus on military solutions, the Obama administration should pursue a diplomatic strategy to end the war. The inauguration of President Ashraf Ghani and the creation of a unity government in Kabul may provide an opportunity for progress in long-delayed and so-far unsuccessful efforts to establish political dialogue with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The International Crisis Group has called upon the UN Security Council and Secretary-General to create a team of high level international mediators to bring together all major Afghan stakeholders in a negotiated political agreement that seeks to end the conflict.

The proposed diplomatic initiative could be part of a renewed UN mission in Afghanistan. The new mission would retain many of the humanitarian, development, and election support programs of the current mission, but would differ in adding the explicit goal of ending the war and fostering post-conflict stability. It would be charged with hosting multi-level negotiations and preparing for the implementation of the ensuing agreement. This would include the development and deployment of a neutral third-party peacekeeping force, which would be needed to help enforce the peace agreement and provide support for what is bound to be a difficult political and security transition.

After 13 years of fruitless and costly war in Afghanistan it is long past time to give peace a chance.

In recognizing Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is sending two messages: encouragement and hope for Muslim women around the world, and support for the continuing relevance and importance of Gandhian principles of nonviolent action.

I am especially moved by the award to Malala. She has inspired young women in Afghanistan and Pakistan who, like her, aspire to improve their lives through education and who reject the obscurantism of violent extremists.

When I was in Afghanistan a couple years ago doing research for our study, Afghan Women Speak, I met a number of brave women who are working for human rights, including members of the Afghan Women’s Network. They talked about the constant threats they face in the streets, especially the lack of protection for women despite the presence of many troops. One said, “When I leave the house in the morning and say good bye to my children I don’t know if I will ever see them again.”

The attack on Malala was the embodiment of their worst nightmares, but her recovery and resolve and now her receipt of the Nobel Prize offer inspiration that their best hopes can be realized. The extremists want to intimidate and subjugate women by confining them to the home. Malala’s example shows that despite the worst a woman can aspire to and achieve success in determining her own fate.

As we know, people learn best from personal stories. Malala’s story, now reinforced by her acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, is a powerful antidote to extremist propaganda.

The folly of bombing

If bombing were an effective way of ending terrorism and violent extremism, Afghanistan and Iraq now would be oases of tranquility. Pakistan would be a peaceful paradise. Israel would be safe and free from the fear of terrorist attack.

Despite more than a decade of U.S. bombing and large scale military intervention, the Taliban controls large swaths of territory in Afghanistan, and ethnic militias and violent extremist groups dominate Iraq. Hundreds of U.S. drone strikes and bombardments by the Pakistani army have not pacified Waziristan. Thousands of Israeli strikes have not diminished Hamas’ grip on Gaza. Air strikes and military interventions in these cases have hardened local resistance and increased the flow of militant recruits.

In his September 10 address, President Obama compared his new policy of military involvement in Iraq and Syria to ongoing U.S. efforts in Yemen and Somalia. The President said that U.S. air strikes and the arming of local allies in these countries have been “successfully pursued.” But Somalia remains unstable and violent and without a central government. Yemen is torn by multiple insurgencies and in recent days has been experiencing armed rebellion in the capital. If this is success, why bother?

Einstein once said that insanity is the act of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

As President Obama unveils his strategy against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, critical questions remain unanswered:

  • Why is the U.S. strategy focused so extensively on military measures when the President himself has stated, and many experts agree, that overcoming the threat posed by ISIS is fundamentally a political problem that will require political solutions?
  • Why do we think limited military efforts will succeed now when more robust military measures over the past decade were unable to bring stability and security to Iraq? When will we learn, as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in 2008, that “we cannot kill or capture our way to victory” in the fight against terrorism and insurgency?
  • Why does the President says there will be no ‘boots on the ground’ when he has already sent hundreds of U.S. military advisers to Iraq? How will we avoid the slippery slope of deeper military involvement if American advisers are killed or kidnapped?
  • How do we ensure that the weapons we provide to local militias in Iraq and Syria are not used against us or our allies in the region? News reports indicate that some of the weapons recently recovered from ISIS fighters in Iraq were made in the U.S.
  • How is it possible to fight against the enemies of the Assad regime in Syria without helping that regime?

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