In the dark of night, President Obama slipped into Afghanistan and signed a monumental agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that Obama said signals both the impending defeat of Al-Qaeda and a huge step toward a final U.S. pullout from Afghanistan.
The U.S. has been such a longtime fixture in the Middle East that a new generation of young Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Iranians have lived all their adolescent and young adult years in the shadow of the United States as an occupying force—with all the animosity that such a designation inherently brings. The longest war in the nation’s history drawing to a close would mean that Obama would have not only ended both wars started by his predecessor, but also ordered the operation exactly a year ago that killed Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the most horrendous terrorist attacks in U.S. history on September 11, 2001. While Republican politicians will attempt to downplay the resonance of these achievements, they are arguably the most significant military events the U.S. has seen in decades—if only because all three of them were intended to bring the killing to a close.
“Over the last three years, the tide has turned,” Obama said in a speech after signing the agreement with Karzai. “The goal that I set—to defeat Al-Qaeda, and deny it a chance to rebuild—is within reach.”
It’s a moment that’s been more than a decade in the making. Ever since Osama bin Laden directed a plot that toppled the Twin Towers and emotionally crippled this nation, the mysterious presence of al-Qaeda and its shadowy existence in the mountains of Afghanistan have haunted U.S. politicians and military leaders. With a circuitous route that regrettably took the U.S. military through Iraq for nine years and into Afghanistan for eleven, the Middle East engagements managed to destroy the moral high ground into which the U.S. has proudly (and somewhat hypocritically) planted its flag for years. Reports of torture, the abuse of prisoners, the desecration of dead Arab bodies on more than one occasion by idiotic Americans, the annihilation of innocent citizens by a crazed American soldier—all of these incidents over time created an image of a nation that had lost its soul and become as heartless as the private military contractors that take billions of American tax dollars every year to quietly do the nation’s dirty work.
With the stroke of a pen, Obama has begun to shut the door on the Afghan mission, which is scheduled to officially end in two years. Its leaders arrested or killed, al-Qaeda is no longer the scary menace that for years has terrorized the dreams of Americans. The price that Americans have paid in military casualties has been high—4,487 U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and another 2,000 killed in Afghanistan. The pain of these losses is felt everyday by families all across the nation, from the troubled inner cities to the poorest farms in rural America, from fancy suburbs to wind-swept small towns.
But while we mourn the American dead, let us not forget the tragic price that has been paid by innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unwitting children, fearful women, dazed men, at least 150,000 of them between the two countries, all gone—bombed, shelled, gunned down on the pockmarked streets and crumbling buildings that they barely recognized as their homes.
That’s right, while we lost 6,500 (with tens of thousands more seriously injured), they lost 150,000 innocents over there. These weren’t secret couriers for al-Qaeda or attaches for the military. No, they were bright and vibrant children, hoping the next day might bring some peace, a little food, maybe a gleeful game of soccer. They were the moms and dads of these little ones, praying that their offspring might one day make it to adulthood.
Pasadena, Chattanooga, Kansas City—these are all U.S. cities with roughly the same populations as the number of Iraqi and Afghan civilians who were wiped out in our wars.
Was it worth it? George W. Bush would probably say, “Absolutely.” But we know of at least 156,000 families who would undoubtedly beg to differ.