Last week, the last American general to lead combat operations in Afghanistan officially lowered the flag to signal the end of the U.S. coalition’s war-fighting mission after 13 years, a milestone that went strangely unheralded in the United States and much of the world.
The absence of fanfare regarding this significant moment in post-9/11 history reflects the uncertain outcome of U.S. military involvement in a faraway, indomitable land where the headlines often delivered more bad news than good news to a war-weary American public.
But neither the public’s fatigue nor the absence of a clean and tidy ending can diminish the contribution and heroic effort by the 831,000 service members who served at least one tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Nor should the costs of going to war, in blood and treasure, ever be forgotten: Some 2,356 American service members have lost their lives and nearly 20,000 have been wounded in a war that has cost about $550 billion. In all, more than 3,400 NATO personnel lost their lives in Afghanistan, including the American total, and over 30,000 were wounded.
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The best way to repay the pain and sacrifice of the American families who lost a loved one, as well as the soldiers who fought there, is to ensure that the nation’s commitment to them never wavers. The volunteer members of the U.S. armed forces did not shirk their duty when asked to risk their lives. Their willing commitment deserves an equal measure of commitment by those back home whom they fought to protect.
One measure of the damage done to the relatively few Americans who answered the call to duty after 9/11 is that some 700,000 veterans out of the more than 2.5 million who served in Iraq and Afghanistan had been awarded disability status connected to their military service as of last year.
The number will keep rising as years pass, but one of the enduring lessons of war is that the costs don’t end when the shooting stops. And in this case, the shooting is not fully over. President Obama has authorized the use of combat forces for the limited mission of targeting leaders of al Qaida and the Taliban who pose a continuing threat. Some 10,800 U.S. soldiers will remain in the country next year. The presence of these soldiers, and the slow but inexorable pullout has raised questions about timing, about the future, whether it was wise to call an end at this time.
“I don’t know if I’m pessimistic or optimistic,” said Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, the departing commander, about America’s reduced profile in Afghanistan. There are reasons to be both.
The new government led by President Ashraf Ghani has formed a partnership with his political rivals, at least for the moment, and he has vowed to make merit-based appointments in the military. The transition from one elected government to another, led by President Ghani, is itself a milestone.
On the doubtful side, Gen. Anderson mentioned not having “the right guys in the right places,” militarily. Meanwhile, Taliban attacks have increased, Afghan military casualties have surpassed 5,000 this year, and some international aid groups and staff are pulling out.
The war is not lost, but it is not won. Either way, though, America cannot be expected to extend its commitment. Mr. Ghani’s government deserves American support, but the United States, at great cost, has bought the Afghan people time to stand and fight on their own. Now it’s up to them.