Bill Everhart: Forever Wars Come To An End
At least this time no one rolled out a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
On July 26, President Joe Biden announced that the 18-year combat mission in Iraq would conclude by the end of 2021. Earlier this year, Biden announced that America’s longest war, the 20-year conflict in Afghanistan, would conclude at the end of August.
The question to be answered in the years ahead is whether anything was learned from conflicts that in Iraq’s case was needless and in the case of Afghanistan long outlasted its shelf life.
Biden’s Iraq announcement barely cracked a news cycle dominated by the relentless COVID pandemic. But at the start of this century, the Afghan and Iraq wars owned the headlines, reflecting the impact of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the nation and the growing disenchantment with the disastrous Iraq War and the seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan began in October of 2001 with the goal of wiping out Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, and his Islamic militant group al-Qaeda. But in an act of massive cynicism, the administration of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2003 shifted the focus to Iraq, where it hoped to settle old scores with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and supposedly introduce democracy to the country.
As a cover, the administration claimed that Saddam was hoarding “weapons of mass destruction.” With the nation in a jingoistic fervor, U.S. troops embarked upon what was promised to be a short war. Cheney said our soldiers would be greeted with flowers.
On May 1, 2003, President Bush stood before a “Mission Accomplished” banner on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and declared that the U.S. had “prevailed” in Iraq. The mission had in fact barely begun. Having gotten rid of Saddam, the U.S. had broken the country and now had to buy it in blood and treasure.
A civil war erupted with U.S. troops caught in the middle. ISIS forces later used the ruined country as a base in its campaign to destabilize the Middle East. And as much-mocked United Nations inspectors had said, there were no weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq.
The Iraq war has cost American taxpayers slightly over 2 trillion dollars. Roughly 189,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed.
Ten years after the war in Afghanistan began, bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, and with al-Qaeda in pieces it was time to end the war. But the U.S. was engaged in nation building, which a variety of nations had failed at in Afghanistan over the centuries. Now, after 20 years there, the U.S. is calling it quits and going home. The cost: An estimated $820 billion for U.S. taxpayers, and the lives of roughly 1,900 soldiers. Far fewer deaths than in Iraq, but all of them painful.
The lessons of Iraq especially, and to a lesser extent Afghanistan? Beware politicians spinning reality, ignoring history, and sticking the nation in a quagmire. Be skeptical of the demands and promises of ambitious military brass with a vested interest in unending wars. Don’t tolerate naive attempts at nation-building.
Those lessons are identical to the lessons that were supposed to have been learned from the Vietnam War. Decades later, a new generation of leaders made the same mistakes and engaged in the same political deceit. For the sake of the nation and its fighting men and women, that pattern must end with Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bill Everhart was the editorial page editor of the Berkshire Eagle for 25 years. He is an occasional contributor to the Eagle.
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