Last month President Obama announced plans for withdrawing by next summer the approximately 30,000 American troops sent to Afghanistan as part of the 2009 surge.
We commend the president for sticking to the July date he had outlined for beginning the withdrawal. However, his plan would not remove all regular combat troops until 2014. We believe the United States is capable of achieving this goal by the end of 2012. America would be more secure and stronger economically if we recognized that we have largely achieved our objectives in Afghanistan and moved aggressively to bring our troops and tax dollars home.
After Al Qaeda attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, we rightly sought to bring to justice those who attacked us, to eliminate Al Qaeda’s safe havens and training camps in Afghanistan, and to remove the terrorist-allied Taliban government. With hard work and sacrifice, our troops, intelligence personnel and diplomatic corps have skillfully achieved these objectives, culminating in the death of Osama bin Laden.
But over the past 10 years, our mission expanded to include a fourth goal: nation-building. That is what we are bogged down in now: a prolonged effort to create a strong central government, a national police force and an army, and civic institutions in a nation that never had any to begin with. Let’s not forget that Afghanistan has been a tribal society for millenniums.
Nineteen months ago the president announced the surge strategy in hopes of stabilizing Afghanistan and strengthening its military and police forces. Today, despite vast investment in training and equipping Afghan forces, the country’s deep-seated instability, rampant corruption and, in some cases, compromised loyalties endure. Extending our commitment of combat troops will not remedy that situation.
Sometimes our national security warrants extreme sacrifices, and our troops are prepared to make them when asked. In this case, however, there is little reason to believe that the continuing commitment of tens of thousands of troops on a sprawling nation-building mission in Afghanistan will make America safer.
National security experts, including the former C.I.A. director Leon E. Panetta, have noted that Al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan has been greatly diminished. Today there are probably fewer than 100 low-level Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda has a much larger presence in a number of other nations.
Our focus shouldn’t be establishing new institutions in Afghanistan, but concentrating on terrorist organizations with global reach. And our military and intelligence organizations have proved repeatedly that they can take the fight to the terrorists without a huge military footprint.
We have urgent needs at home: high unemployment and a flood of foreclosures, a record deficit and a debt that is over $14 trillion and growing. We are spending $10 billion a month in Afghanistan. We need to change course.
A week before the president’s speech, 24 of our Senate colleagues joined us by signing onto a bipartisan letter urging the president to announce a sustained and sizable drawdown from Afghanistan with the goal of removing regular combat troops. This group includes progressives, moderates and conservatives united behind one conclusion: we’ve accomplished what we set out to accomplish in Afghanistan, and we can no longer afford the lives and money it is taking to pursue an ambitious open-ended nation-building mission.
It is not too late to change course in what has become the longest American war in history. In light of our considerable national needs, both security and domestic, we urge the president to bring our troops home at last.
Jeff Merkley, Democrat of Oregon, Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, and Tom Udall, Democrat of New Mexico. They are United States senators.