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.

The future of U.S. policy in Afghanistan

In my class this week my students and I discussed the future of Afghanistan. We reviewed a pair of recent remarkable articles in Foreign Affairs about the failure of U.S. policy, written by authors who served as principal architects and managers of that policy, Karl Eikenberry and Stephen Biddle.

Eikenberry was the former U.S. ambassador and senior military commander in Afghanistan. In his article he writes that the assumptions of U.S. policy were “spectacularly incorrect.” The counterinsurgency mission “failed” because of the inability of U.S. and other foreign forces to provide protection for Afghan civilians and because of the absence of any semblance of accountable and effective governance to serve as an alternative to the Taliban and the war lords. Eikenberry confirms what other analysts have argued: in counterinsurgency missions no amount of external military force or financial assistance can compensate for the lack of legitimate governance in the state for which one is supposedly fighting.

Biddle was an advocate of President Obama’s Afghanistan ‘surge’ policy and has been an advisor to U.S. commanders David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. In his essay Biddle assesses the grim prospects for Afghanistan’s future and the limited choices available for U.S. policy. He outlines three options. One is to maintain a limited force in Afghanistan, as currently planned. The result he argues will be a “grinding stalemate” of continued war, paid for by U.S. taxpayers to the tune of at least $20 billion a year. The other options are to withdraw all U.S. forces, facing the inevitable defeat of the U.S. mission now rather than in the future, and to push for a negotiated power sharing agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

When leading military commanders and advisers tell us that our policies have failed, we ought to pay attention. In my view the only viable option in Afghanistan is some combination of Biddle’s alternative options. Withdraw U.S. forces sooner rather than later, and negotiate a power-sharing agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

Most important is the need for a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy, away from military interventionism toward greater support for diplomacy, development and good governance as the key to building peace and stability and overcoming violent extremism.