News-Miner opinion: The image of the last American C-17 thundering into the midnight sky from Hamid Karzai International Airport in Afghanistan at the chaotic, violent end of this nation’s longest foreign war offered a haunting, breath-taking finality.
The $2.3 trillion spent over the years, the nearly 2,500 American military lives lost, the 4,000 civilian contractors killed, the 60,000 Afghan army soldiers killed, plus countless Afghan civilians over the war’s nearly 20-year span — all were distilled in that instance to a single C-17 climbing hard, winging to freedom with its precious cargo.
For Alaska’s more than 70,000 veterans, it must have been a sobering moment. Watching the hurried evacuation of more than 120,000 U.S. citizens, allies and Afghans who worked or supported our military stirred old memories. Some who served in Afghanistan are wondering, as many Vietnam veterans did after watching aghast as American troops and Vietnamese refugees scrambled out of Saigon some 45 years ago ahead of the North Vietnamese Army: “All of this, the blood and tears and sacrifice, was for what?”
It is a more than fair question from those who, along with their families, carried the brunt and burden of the war in Afghanistan. Their families struggled and somehow made do through their repeated deployments. It is understandable they want to know whether their time and effort in-country served any purpose.
The answer is intangible. As freedom is intangible. As hope is intangible. As the future is intangible.
During their time in Afghanistan, our men and women crushed al-Qaida, which had brought down the World Trade Center. They gave the Afghan people a taste of modern civilization, of hope, of freedom they someday could have. They showed them a new world, a new civil society. Girls could go to school, could excel and take their rightful place in society and in the work force. Now, with our departure, they face the crushing reality of mandatory burkas and the sting of the fundamentalist Taliban’s “War Against Women.”
By almost any metric, the men and women of the United States who served in Afghanistan made a real difference, leaving it a far better place. They left behind improved infrastructure, medical care and public works — and all that despite rampant corruption in the Afghan government and incessant challenges by the Taliban.
The Associated Press reports, for instance, that infant mortality rates fell by half during the Western occupation. “In 2005, fewer than one in 4 Afghans had access to electricity,” the wire service reports. “By 2019, nearly all did.”
When the question arises about what the United States accomplished in Afghanistan, the answer is complex. Our troops left behind for the Afghan people a nascent hope for freedom and a vision of what their nation and lives could be.
That, indeed, is a powerful legacy for warriors we all can be proud of.