Ten years ago this week, we invaded Afghanistan with a clear mission. Our nation had been attacked and Afghanistan served as a safe haven for those responsible, sheltering al Qaeda training camps within its borders. Days after the attacks on our homeland, I voted to authorize the use of military force against the perpetrators and those who had aided and abetted them. I stand by that vote.
But today, ten years after the war began, the number of al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan is estimated at less than 100. Our objective is no longer clear, and neither is the rationale for our continued presence. After a decade of fighting, more than 2,700 coalition lives lost, and nearly half a trillion dollars spent (the equivalent of five years' worth of the federal budget for infrastructure), this has become a war without a mission -- and, thus, a war we cannot afford to continue.
Last year, I traveled to Afghanistan to spend time with our troops, meet with military leaders, and get a first-hand view of the situation on the ground there. What I saw and heard only strengthened my conviction that we must bring our troops home and end our involvement in Afghanistan on a much more rapid timetable than President Obama has offered.
No one can see our troops in action and fail to be impressed by their skill, their dedication, and their courage. I met American troops engaged in training police, building roads and bridges, and helping farmers improve their agricultural yield. In a nation where poverty and lawlessness are rampant -- and democracy is struggling to survive -- these are noble efforts, indeed.
But, I also met with young servicemen in military hospitals -- just some of the thousands forever altered by the physical and psychological wounds of war. And I was reminded that, as heroic as our troops are in their effort to bring stability to the Afghan people, that is not why we went to war there.
Our original mission, to eliminate the al Qaeda threat, was narrowly defined -- and quickly accomplished. Al Qaeda operatives were killed or driven from Afghanistan in the war's first year, and the terrorists that original vote authorized our military to find and eliminate have long since fled to such countries as Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Their leader, Osama bin Laden, was killed in Pakistan by our brave Navy SEALS -- but even before his death, as one of my congressional colleagues remarked on the last night of our trip, no one had uttered the al Qaeda mastermind's name the entire time we were in Afghanistan.
Indeed, as I traveled the country, speaking with our military leaders, no one seemed able to articulate exactly what goal our continued presence was serving, how we would know when we had achieved it, or what a "victory" that would allow us to bring our troops home would look like. Yes, they talked about counterinsurgency or COIN, as they called it. But to many of us, COIN sounds like a war without end.
We still have roughly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan; and Afghans increasingly see us as indefinite occupiers. As violence increases, our losses continue to mount -- this August was the deadliest month of the entire war.
It makes the "mission creep" all the more infuriating. How can we continue to put our troops in harm's way without a clear understanding of the mission and a well-defined exit strategy?
And with our own roads, bridges, and schools in disrepair, how can we continue to spend taxpayer dollars building them in Afghanistan? How can we continue to borrow so much money to fund this war when America's working families are struggling and our budget is already at the breaking point?
Our troops carry out their orders with skill and pride. It is not up to them to ask questions about the merits of our involvement or the wisdom of our mission. It is up to us. That is why I opposed President Obama's "surge," and why I am calling on him to produce a new plan for ending our involvement in Afghanistan as quickly -- and safely -- as possible.
We went into Afghanistan for the right reasons, but we are staying for the wrong ones. After ten years, it is time to bring America's longest war to a close and bring our troops home.