I have a story to share about Dean Smith, the legendary basketball coach who passed away this week.

I met Coach Smith in early 1983, the year following North Carolina’s national basketball championship. This was the time of the nuclear freeze movement, which was sweeping across the United States like a proverbial prairie fire.

As executive director of SANE, I was working with our North Carolina chapter on a statewide radio advertising campaign. We were debating who would be the right person to narrate the messages. We wanted someone with breakthrough appeal—someone “who walks on water in this state,” as one of the chapter leaders put it.  We all agreed. Dean Smith was the one.

But why would the prestigious Coach stick his neck out on an issue like the nuclear freeze? Someone recalled that Smith had been among the first major college coaches to desegregate his teams. “He’s a man of dignity,” another said, “I’ll bet he’s for the freeze as well.” We decided to give it a try.

I was asked to write to the Coach and ask if he would be our spokesperson. Two weeks later came the prompt reply, “Coach Smith will be glad to participate in your campaign. Please call to arrange a time to visit.” We were ecstatic.

A couple weeks later we were there, entering Carmichael Auditorium, the scene of Tar Heels basketball heroics. We stared in awe at the many championship banners hanging from the ceiling and the dozens of trophies and plaques bearing witness to the rich traditions of North Carolina basketball. At the coach’s office we exchanged pleasantries with his assistants and were ushered into the inner sanctum, speechless in the presence of the great coach.

Smith was warm and amiable, rising from his desk in an unassuming manner to greet us and urging that we make ourselves at home. We brought with us some draft scripts. He sat down at his desk, looked them over, scribbled changes here and there, and then addressed the microphone.

Hello, this is Coach Dean Smith. Winning the national championship was a great thrill. But there is one contest nobody wins – the international arms race. We all lose in a nuclear war, and the risk grows greater every day unless we do something about it. A majority of Americans support the bilateral nuclear freeze. But it won’t happen unless you take action. … Add your voice to the growing demand for a nuclear freeze.

In another script he made a self-deprecating reference to his controversial practice of freezing the game, instructing his players to keep passing the ball rather than shoot. This was before the introduction of the shot clock in basketball. Chuckling lightly he read:

We can debate the merits of a freeze in a basketball game, but there is one freeze we can all support, the bilateral nuclear weapons freeze.

After a couple of flawless takes, Smith was finished. He smiled and thanked us for coming. We were thrilled at having met the Coach but more importantly in gaining his support for our campaign.

SANE’s radio spots hit the airwaves the following week: nearly 300 spots on dozens of stations throughout the state. News of Coach Smith’s support for the freeze was everywhere, on the front pages and in the sports section. Articles on his involvement appeared in every major newspaper in the state and on all the major television and radio stations. The widespread news coverage and the hundreds of ad placements meant that Smith’s appeal to end the arms race saturated the North Carolina market and reached millions of people.

It was a major boost for North Carolina SANE and for our efforts to build public support for the nuclear freeze. Smith was not only a great basketball coach but a person of social conscience and moral courage.

A Litany of Failure

It is commonly believed that military force is an effective way of countering terrorism and violent extremism.

But the use of military force often fails to achieve its objectives and can be counterproductive. According to former General Rupert Smith, one of the UK’s most distinguished military leaders, the United States and other powers have engaged in wars of intervention in recent decades that “have in one way or another spectacularly failed to achieve the results intended.”[i]

Consider some of the most recent examples:

  • Iraq, an unnecessary war of choice that shattered the state and produced a society riven by sectarianism, now under siege by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, with the U.S. re-engaged militarily and the death toll among civilians rising
  • Afghanistan, America’s longest war, in support of one of the world’s most corrupt regimes, against a revived “industrial strength” Taliban insurgency, with violence and civilian and military casualties increasing
  • Pakistan, site of more than 400 U.S. drone strikes, where the Tehreek-e-Taliban and other insurgent groups in the northwest region have remained strong, with violence and instability continuing
  • Libya, where U.S. and NATO forces intervened to protect civilians but ended up supporting armed regime change, the government now in ruins and the country in chaos as rival militias fight for power and oil wealth
  • Yemen, site of dozens of U.S drone strikes, which President Obama cited as an example of “successfully pursued” objectives, where the government has collapsed, and insurgent forces have taken over the capital

It is probably safe to say that in the countries listed above, the number of armed militants and violent extremists is greater now than before the U.S. intervened.

The lesson for counterterrorism strategy should be obvious. Stop relying on ineffective military means that make matters worse.

[i] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 4.

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.


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