Twelve years of war have failed America

Over the past several weeks, news about the chaos in Libya, Egypt, and the deteriorating civil war in Syria have captured the international spotlight.  Domestically, the growing antipathy between the Republican and Democratic parties regarding budget issues, the Affordable Care Act, and the debt ceiling has consumed what remaining “bandwidth” most Americans had to devote to important issues.  Buried from public view, however, has been notice of the fact that there are still almost 60,000 U.S. troops fighting a war on the ground in Afghanistan.  As negotiations continue between Washington and Kabul regarding the nature of U.S. post-2014 military involvement, now is a good time to assess the balance sheet after 12 years of war.  The results aren’t pretty.

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Prior to the war in Afghanistan, between 1992 and 2000 al-Qaeda had conducted less than 10 moderate profile strikes, resulting in approximately 850 deaths.  In the years since, al-Qaeda has evolved, spawned numerous “franchises”, spread active cells to countries across the world, and in just Iraq and Syria over the past two years have been responsible for killing many thousands.  In both Iraq and Afghanistan combined, the U.S. military has thus far suffered a total of 58,330 casualties (6,765 deaths and 51,565 wounded); an additional 253,330 have suffered traumatic brain injury; the U.S. has spent trillions on the wars, paid for by amassing a staggering volume of debt. The cost to civilians in the defeated countries, however, is even more astonishing.

Conservative estimates for the number of people killed in Iraq are approximately 150,000; for Afghanistan nearly 20,000.  Approximately five million combined from both countries have been turned into refugees within or outside of their own borders.  Iraq today suffers extremist violence on par with the worst of the insurgent violence endured in 2007 and is in danger of sliding into all-out civil war.  Afghanistan continues to be plagued by insurgent violence, tribal conflicts, and warlordism; once the bulk of NATO troops withdraw at the end of 2014, there is a real danger they too may slip back into civil war.  Despite eight and 12 years of US nation-building efforts, both nations are ranked among the most corrupt in the world (Iraq 7th worst and Afghanistan 4th worst out of 176 ranked), and  listed among the worst-performing economies on the globe.

As a result of the two major wars the U.S. has fought since 9/11: Violent extremists who target the U.S. have become stronger and more capable than before the wars; U.S. troops have suffered hundreds of thousands of casualties and seen their conventional skills atrophy; U.S. national debt has exploded, exacerbated in large measure by war financing; the people of the target countries have suffered hundreds of thousands killed and millions displaced; and both Iraq and Afghanistan face the threat of Syria-caliber civil war.

By any quantifiable measure, the United States and the nations where we waged war are less secure, have suffered tremendous casualties, and are in a more precarious economic situation than before the decision for war was made.

The physical evidence is overwhelming: our proclivity to employ lethal military power to solve complex security problems has failed our country and directly led to the suffering of foreign populations.  As we move into the third year of the second decade of war, we argue it is beyond time to recognize the limits to military power and instead elevate diplomacy and other non-violent means of solving problems.

Too often such views are thoughtlessly attacked as being ‘defeatist’ – or perhaps the worst pejorative that can be saddled on an American: ‘weak.’  To the contrary, we contend that diplomatic efforts armed with a genuine interest in seeking mutually beneficial outcomes, divorced from hubris and arrogance has a far better chance of attaining American security objectives than the destructive and inconclusive wars fought over the past 12 years.  Polls increasingly indicate the American people are already coming to this conclusion.  It is time now that America’s political and opinion leaders catch up to the rest of the country.

Davis is an Army Lieutenant-colonel.  Southworth is a veteran of the Iraq War and a legislative associate for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone, and do not reflect the policies of the Department of Defense or the Department of the Army.