Remembering the lessons of 9/11 in Afghanistan

We all remember the horror of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania nine years ago. The images and experiences of that day have been burned into the collective memory of the world.

Sept. 11, 2001, also taught us some very clear lessons. We learned that ignoring an unstable situation that seems so far away -- as we did after the Soviet Union left Afghanistan -- can have lethal long-term consequences at home. We learned that we cannot hide from international terrorism; it will seek us out. And we learned that defense in the 21st century cannot begin and end at our borders.

It is important, particularly on anniversaries like today's, to remember those lessons, even as we mourn the victims. It is especially important when raised voices, in the United States and other countries, call for an end to the mission in Afghanistan; to bring the troops home now, regardless of conditions on the ground; essentially to let the Afghans deal with the Taliban and al-Qaeda on their own.

Following this route would be a mistake of historic proportions. Were we to do that, there would be a clear domino effect: The Afghan government would not long be able to resist the insurgency. Civil war in Afghanistan would be inevitable. The Taliban fighters and extremists like them would be emboldened across that region -- including in nuclear-armed Pakistan -- and much wider afield. And al-Qaeda would once again enjoy a haven from which to plan terrorism attacks on a global scale.

That is unacceptable. NATO and our partners in this mission must and will stay as long as it takes to finish our job, to ensure that Afghanistan can resist terrorism on its own.

The strategy NATO has recently put in place is the right one. We are fighting an insurgency. The people who developed our strategy and who are implementing it are the best in the world at counterinsurgency. We also finally have in place the resources for this approach to get real traction. As of last week, nearly all of the 30,000 new U.S. troops, and about 7,000 troops from other nations in the mission, have arrived and are conducting operations. We have added hundreds of trainers. Afghan security forces have grown by almost 60,000 in the past nine months, and we are ahead of schedule in developing them. And most Afghan forces are now partnered with international forces in the field, which means they are preparing faster to take the lead themselves.

Is it working? In a nutshell, yes. In two-thirds of Afghanistan, there is little fighting and quite a bit of development. Al-Qaeda has no haven anywhere in Afghanistan. The Taliban is under pressure almost everywhere. And steadily, the Afghan army and police are finding their feet.

It is, of course, not easy. Every day is difficult, and so many soldiers, from so many countries, have lost their lives in this operation. Many people understandably ask how long this effort will take; how long until we can bring home our men and women in uniform?

Yet there is, finally, a clear road map ahead of us. We will start handing the lead responsibility for security to the Afghans next year. Our aim, agreed to by the entire international community, is that by 2014 Afghans will be in the lead across the country. The speed of this process has to be based on conditions in Afghanistan, and the transition to the Afghan lead won't automatically mean our troops come home immediately. But we are moving in the right direction, toward a stronger Afghanistan that poses no threat to its neighbors or the larger international community.

This saying about Afghanistan keeps turning up: We have the watches, the Taliban have the time. It demonstrates a misunderstanding of what we are doing in Afghanistan. Of course, we won't be there forever. We shouldn't be. But we are training 300,000 Afghan forces, and they live there. The Taliban can't outwait them, and we won't leave until these forces are ready. The Taliban fighters can bomb and assassinate and terrorize. But they can't take power. They haven't yet lost. But they can't win.

We have difficult days, months and years ahead. NATO will stay the course. We will never allow the Taliban to take power by force. We will never support any political deals that sacrifice the human rights, including women's rights, enshrined in the Afghan constitution. And we will never again allow al-Qaeda to have a haven in Afghanistan.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of NATO