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Taking Stock on the Tenth Anniversary of the Afghan War

Posted: 08/10/11 01:00

One month ago, Americans mourned the 10th anniversary of the tragic attacks of September 11th that ended some 3,000 innocent lives and changed 300 million more in our country. The day after the attacks, British papers declared, 'We are all Americans' and America's oldest ally stood ready to join us in a righteous campaign to root out global terrorism.

Yesterday marked a second ten-year anniversary: the beginning of America's longest-running war in Afghanistan, joined by British and NATO forces. While this day will largely go unmarked by official Washington and London, it will be every bit as real for the families of the 1,753 American service-men and women who have so far lost their lives in that war, the 4,477 more who have died in Iraq, and the 561 British forces who have died in both these wars.

And then there are the families of Afghan and Iraq civilians killed since the invasions began, for which no official tallies exist. A 2006 epidemiological study by Johns Hopkins University put the figure in excess of 650,000 people in Iraq alone.

Ten years on, it's fitting to take stock of this complex and continuing conflict.

By the valour of US forces and their British allies, we have rid the world of a brutal terrorist and Iraqi dictator, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, who inflicted untold suffering on innocent people and made a mockery of an Islamic faith that is practiced peacefully by over a billion people. In the process, we have prevented further Al-Qaeda attacks on American shores against the grim predictions of a new age of insecurity at home. London was not spared on 7th July 2005.

And although democracy is proving stubbornly slow in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have arguably contributed to a democratic spring in the broader Middle East-most notably through our unified support of the Libyan rebels against another brutal dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. These are legitimate gains to our shared national interests and to global peace that no pacifist can deny.

But they have come at a price. Opponents of the war are fond of pointing out the American cost in dollar terms: more than $100 billion per year in Afghanistan today and an estimated $3.2-4 trillion since the two wars began, according to Brown University. Even as we pursued the Afghan War and launched a second, preventive war based on faulty intelligence in Iraq, the U.S. Congress passed massive tax cuts favoring wealthy Americans, which together greatly compounded today's federal deficits. Those financial costs have largely been deferred to future generations who were not party to the decision to go to war.

To understand the true cost of war, however, we need to speak in human terms. The nearly 7,000 brave American and British soldiers who died in the field are joined by tens of thousands more whose severe physical and psychological injuries continue to afflict them and their families out of public view. Unlike past wars, where nationwide drafts meant that all citizens sacrificed together (or joined in opposition), these wars have been fought by a small segment of our people, many of whom enlisted because jobs were scarce and college was out of reach. Meanwhile, some 120,000 American troops are still deployed.

And then there is the human good that was not served because of America's rush to war. One in five American children lives in poverty today, the highest number since estimates began a half-century ago. One in four is food-insecure and with little hope of getting a good education, much less going to college. For black and Hispanic kids, the rate of poverty in the U.S. is three times greater than for whites. The U.K. is not immune to similar challenges, particularly in this time of economic austerity.

Beyond our shores, 1.4 billion people (22%) live on less than $1.25 per day, meaning food, shelter, healthcare, and sanitation are scarce. One in four children in poor countries work for wages and 25,000 children under five die each day because of preventable, poverty-related causes. Some of these children will fall prey to the promise of easy answers to their suffering through civil unrest or terrorism.

While we are not the authors of much of this suffering abroad, we and all countries in our globalized system contribute--and we are in a position to help. The estimated cost of ending extreme poverty worldwide under the Millennium Development Goals is far below the cost of the continuing Afghan war and a small fraction of the cost of the war in Iraq. With foreign aid spending at less than 1% of the U.S. budget and cut by 14% last year, there is room to grow.

On the night of September 11th, 2001, then-President George W. Bush gave voice to our country's higher aspirations in the midst of all our fear: "This is a day when all Americans from every walk of life unite in our resolve for justice and peace." As we look back on the unspeakable attacks of September 11th and the wars that followed, we can honor the sacrifice that so many citizens have made by heeding the call to be a force for justice and peace in a broken world.