Celebrating Memorial Day After 16 Years of ‘Nation-Building’ War

By Rob Schwarzwalder Published on May 27, 2019

Since March 2003, almost exactly 7,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces have been killed in our conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Almost 8,000 American military contractors have fallen.

However, about 450,000 Iraqis and Afghanis have been killed, as well. And about 65,000 have fallen in Pakistan, including roughly 100 U.S. military contractors. And then there are the many thousands of those maimed and dislocated. Physically broken, emotionally shattered.

These numbers represent individual people. Men, women, and children. Many ethnicities. They are not statistics on a graph, but names and faces, hopes and dreams. And their families have shared in their pain, and still do.

Christianity in Iraq

We think of our soldiers in the context of the sacrifices they have made, and we should. But others have sacrificed, too. Consider how the Christian community fared. In Afghanistan, even before America’s military intervention, the community was mostly non-existent. But in Iraq, it was substantial. Not any longer. As Emma Green reports in The Atlantic, “Before the American invasion, as many as 1.4 million Christians lived in the country. Today, fewer than 250,000 remain — an 80 percent drop in less than two decades.”

After so many deaths, untold numbers of wounded, and countless billions of dollars, what, exactly, has America achieved in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Why? Because Iraq, since the U.S. entered that nation to topple Saddam Hussein, has become dominated by Islamists. Christians find they are treated as second-class citizens and their lives are often in danger. Hundreds of thousands have fled.

As Green notes in her thoughtful Atlantic piece, Iraqi Christians “have an influential and powerful ally: the United States government, which, under President Donald Trump, has made supporting Christianity in the Middle East an even more overt priority of American foreign policy than it was under George W. Bush or Barack Obama.” In addition, Vice-President Pence has made protecting Christians in the northern, semi-independent Kurdish region of Iraq a personal mission.

Has It All Been Worth the Cost?

These are noble and admirable things. But there’s a larger point in all of this: After so many deaths, untold numbers of wounded, and countless billions of dollars, what, exactly, has America achieved in Afghanistan and Iraq?

Iraq is at peace now, given Mr. Trump’s commitment to destroying ISIS and the remarkable and courageous efforts of American and American-led forces in getting rid of the so-called “caliphate.” But it is by all accounts a fragile peace. It is subject to continued terrorist threats. Thousands of underground ISIS and other Islamists still threaten Iraq.

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Then there are the Iraqi militia forces. As one respected analyst noted, “You have a range of groups in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization: Some are Sunni, some are pro-Iraqi government, some have ties to the Quds force and the Islamic Guard.” And some of these militias have close ties with Iran.

“Do not travel to Iraq due to terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict,” said our own Department of State in a warning issued earlier this month. “Numerous terrorist and insurgent groups are active in Iraq and regularly attack both Iraqi security forces and civilians. Anti-U.S. sectarian militias may also threaten U.S. citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq.”

Afghanistan? It’s a mess. Corruption. Violence. Mosques bombed. Again, the State Department: “Do not travel to Afghanistan due to crime, terrorism, civil unrest, kidnapping, and armed conflict.” But wait, it’s even worse: “Terrorist and insurgent groups continue planning and executing attacks in Afghanistan. … The U.S. Embassy’s ability to provide routine and emergency services to U.S. citizens in Afghanistan is severely limited, particularly outside of Kabul.”

Lessons Learned

In 2003, I was serving as chief-of-staff to a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Like just about everyone else, I supported President Bush’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein. I now wonder if I should not have at least questioned our “nation building” efforts after Saddam was found hiding in a “spider hole.”

As to Afghanistan, we didn’t have much choice. Its Taliban “government” thought al-Qaeda was a fine bunch. Military action on our part was needed.

But “nation building”? I wonder if we should simply have told the U.N. to earn its keep (after all, that body receives much of its funding from our taxpayers) and rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq. American assistance and advice, yes. But 16 years of war? That’s a different question.

A cousin of mine served as an Army Ranger chaplain in Iraq in the early days of our involvement there. A nephew has served four tours, two in each country. Both are home safe, for which I am grateful.

This Memorial Day, tens of thousands of American families have suffered great loss in our war on terror and radical Islamism. Their loved ones, unlike my family’s, did not come home. Or they came home with wounds, physical, emotional, and spiritual, that endure. They deserve our prayers. Our thanks. And all the support our government, our churches, and our shared patriotism can offer them.

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