I just returned from visiting Afghanistan as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation, my third visit to the region since American forces and our allies liberated Afghanistan from Taliban rule. Every time I go, I return with a new appreciation of the challenges faced by our troops and the Afghan people.
Working together with 48 other countries, including our NATO allies, we are helping the Afghan people deny safe haven to Islamist extremists, who have in the past made terrorism Afghanistan's number one export.
Unquestionably, the highlight of the trip was seeing firsthand the courage and dedication of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. Every day, working in harsh conditions, these men and women take great risks to defend the United States and help the Afghan people. I had the opportunity to meet with many Wisconsinites during my trip, and I'm proud to have these young men and women representing our state and our nation to the world.
In the nearly 10 years since my first visit, the progress Afghanistan has made is inspiring: Women walk unveiled and without fear. Crowded markets and traffic jams indicate slow but real progress. Child mortality has dropped by 25% in the last decade, and there are now 8 million students in school nationwide - including 2.9 million girls.
To be sure, these gains have come with heavy sacrifices - thousands of Americans have given their lives, and many more have been injured. One way we can honor these sacrifices is by finishing what these brave service members have started.
Make no mistake: The justification for our post-9/11 intervention in Afghanistan remains valid today. If the Taliban and its allies, al Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, regain control of Afghanistan, they would again be able to focus on attacking America instead of fighting for their own survival.
President Obama has announced a U.S. force reduction in Afghanistan, but the timing of this withdrawal seems to be driven more by the 2012 election than by facts on the ground. Today, we have about 96,000 troops in Afghanistan, a number scheduled to decrease to 68,000 by September 2012. As one battalion commander in Helmand Province told me, we're at the peak of security today, at current troop levels. Any decision on troop levels should be based on security needs - not a campaign-inspired race for the exits.
Furthermore, the September 2012 deadline means that we'll be conducting a withdrawal in the heart of the fighting season in Afghanistan - right when our remaining forces will need the most support. I heard from troops up and down the chain of command who were hopeful that they would see force levels remain stable through the next fighting season, rather than seeing their combat strength steadily sapped over the course of next year.
Afghanistan will eventually need to be able to defend itself without a U.S. military presence. We can help through the Afghan Local Police program and through Village Stabilization Operations. These programs draw on the unique abilities of our special forces to live in Afghan villages and help communities maintain day-to-day security. By living with the people, these forces build the confidence of the populace and provide a critical link back to invaluable U.S capabilities such as combat air support and medical evacuation. Programs like these hold the promise of an Afghanistan that can one day provide for its own security.
A transition plan is in place for Afghan forces to take control of the country's security in 2014. Even as we work toward that point, it is important to remember that our nation's commitment to Afghanistan isn't likely to end there. Our nation's troops and resources will continue to support the Afghan people for years to come - not to engage in nation-building, but to mitigate the risk posed by the region's extremists to our own national security.
I remain confident that we can achieve our goal in Afghanistan if we have the political will and strategic patience to finish the job. Anything less would be a betrayal of those who have lost their lives in the cause of Afghanistan's freedom, not to mention the safety and security of the American people.