In September 2001, when the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to use all necessary and appropriate force against those responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, we knew our enemy: Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network. Within a month, the United States began combat operations in Afghanistan, whose Taliban-led government had provided a haven for the terrorist organization.
Today, nearly 10 years later, we have accomplished what President Obama called the “most significant achievement to date” in our war against Al Qaeda: Bin Laden is dead. And according to CIA Director Leon Panetta, there may be as few as 50 members of Al Qaeda residing in Afghanistan.
Although we must remain vigilant in our efforts to defeat Al Qaeda and must continue our support for the Afghan people, there is simply no justification for the continued deployment of 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan. This July, the president should expedite his promised withdrawal of our combat forces. Moreover, we should now set an end date for the U.S. deployment there.
As quickly as can be safely accomplished, American forces should be drawn down to a point where they are sufficient only to conduct targeted counter-terrorism operations, train Afghan security forces and protect American and coalition personnel. Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has suggested that 10,000 to 25,000 troops would be adequate to fulfill this mission and that this level could be safely reached within 12 to 18 months.
We have to be realistic about what we can achieve in Afghanistan. The notion that the United States can build a Western-style democracy there is a myth. Instead, we should focus on what we can and must accomplish: preventing Al Qaeda from threatening the United States, and supporting Afghans as they determine the way forward.
Recently, I heard an expert on Afghanistan state that withdrawing U.S. troops would be risky because it “reaffirms the regional perception that the United States is not a reliable ally.”
I was startled by this statement. We did not go into Afghanistan with the intention of rebuilding the country or maintaining a large, permanent presence. Furthermore, the United States has sacrificed tremendously in Afghanistan. We are spending an estimated $10 billion a month there, and our total so far is almost half a trillion dollars. We have trained 125,000 members of the Afghan police and 159,000 members of the Afghan army, and spent an estimated $26 billion equipping them.
Tragically, we have also lost 1,576 American service members, and another 11,541 have been wounded, many so seriously that their lives will never be the same. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times detailed the extraordinary increase in the number of American military personnel suffering the loss of multiple limbs or devastating groin injuries.
The Obama administration has clearly defined our objective in Afghanistan: to defeat Al Qaeda, ensuring that it no longer poses a significant threat to U.S. national security. We must not allow this goal to be distorted or expanded. The truth is we can continue to disrupt and dismantle Al Qaeda with sophisticated intelligence and targeted counter-terrorism raids, as evidenced by the daring special forces raid that killed Bin Laden.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle share similar views. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) has called our expenditures in Afghanistan “fundamentally unsustainable,” and the committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), said Afghanistan “does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal restraints.”
Furthermore, Americans are ready for our troops to come home. According to a recent USA Today/Gallup poll, nearly 60% of Americans feel the U.S. has fulfilled its mission in Afghanistan and should bring the troops home.
That is why I have introduced a bill in the Senate that would require the administration to give Congress a plan for redeploying our troops that includes an end date.
The United States has spent more years fighting in Afghanistan than it has in any other war in the nation’s history. We have made progress on our core objective: crippling Al Qaeda. Now is the time for us to focus on that goal and finish the job. We can do this while dramatically reducing the number of our troops serving in harm’s way and reducing the burden on our taxpayers. We owe that much to our troops, and to the American people.
By Sen. Barbara Boxer, (D-Calif.) is a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.