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.

Iraq and Afghanistan: The Human Toll

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.