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What Have we Bought for $1 Trillion?

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As of 10:06 on Sunday, May 30th, we will have spent $1 trillion in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A trillion dollars is a baffling amount of money. If you write it out, use twelve zeros. Even after serving in Congress for over a decade, I, like most Americans, still have a hard time wrapping my head around sums like this.

This month, we mark the seventh anniversary of President Bush's declaration of "mission accomplished" in Iraq, yet five American soldiers have been killed there in May alone. Iraqis went to the polls nearly three months ago, but the political system remains so fractured that no party has been able to piece together a coalition. There are some indications that sectarian violence is again on the rise.

The only clear winner of the Iraq war is Iran. Their mortal enemy, Saddam Hussein, was taken out and fellow Shiites are in charge. Iran has been emboldened to the point of threatening the stability of the region and the world with its growing nuclear capability.

And then there's Afghanistan, which, after nearly a decade of war, represents the longest continuous U.S. military engagement ever. Even the non-partisan Congressional Research Service recently declared the situation in Afghanistan as a "deteriorating security situation and no comprehensive political outcome yet in sight." And the U.S. military just suffered its 1,000th casualty in Afghanistan on Friday.

So the real question is: What have we bought for $1 trillion? Are we safer? As our troops and treasure are still locked down in Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorists are training, recruiting and organizing in Somalia, Yemen and dozens of other places around the globe. While it appears that we have made significant progress in weakening Al Qaeda's network, we have increasing concerns about homegrown terrorists.

Isn't it time to invest in a different strategy? I have been doing a lot of thinking about the nexus between the low status of women and the presence of instability, violence and terrorism. It is simply a fact that the countries in which women are least empowered are the most violent. Could it be that policy-makers and defense experts have overlooked a tool that is staring us right in the face? It's in the eyes of women -- sometimes masked by a burqa, sometimes scarred with acid, sometimes tear stained from the grief of losing a husband or child to war. It's these women who are often fiercely determined to stop the killing and provide a secure environment for their families. Does it even make sense for half of the human race to play only a minor role in countries now plagued by war and violence?

The data indisputably prove the case that when investments are made in women, communities are more stable, healthier, and less violent. The principle tools, which just happen to be far less expensive than the weapons and manpower of war, are the education of girls and economic empowerment of women.

We already have some positive experience that we can build upon. Where the U.S. military and our NATO allies have made a conscious effort to reach out to local women in a culturally sensitive way, they have seen the benefits of utilizing the unique abilities of these women. A Canadian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team in Kandahar met regularly with local women leaders who notified NATO of local corruption and security threats and also conveyed their priorities for improving life in their communities. The U.S. marines have found that using Female Engagement Teams to establish dialogue and collaboration with Afghan women has helped to build rapport between Americans and Afghans, as well as providing critical intelligence that might otherwise have been missed.

On Sunday we hit the $1 trillion mark, but on Memorial Day we will honor all those men and women who gave their lives to fight for this country. This includes the over 5,000 men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. Even in difficult economic times, this is by far the most devastating cost of all: the lives we have lost in these two conflicts.

This weekend, I hope all Americans will take the opportunity to consider the cost of ongoing war. We simply cannot afford to continue pouring American blood and treasure into conflicts that will never be solved by a total dependence on military force. We should look to the women to provide the cost-effective, powerful force for peace.