2011 is a critical year in Afghanistan that will test America’s resolve in helping that nation establish lasting security and a viable state. Recently, I visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, where I saw firsthand how our military and diplomatic efforts are contributing to long-term stability for this region. I also had the honor and privilege of meeting fellow Floridians serving in the Armed Forces overseas. At places like Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, they — and their families at home — are proudly sacrificing so that all of us may continue to live in freedom.
This trip deepened my belief that Afghanistan’s security is critical to our own security. America must continue to play a significant role that focuses on combating terrorists while supporting the development of Afghan security forces, promoting the rule of law, encouraging regional economic development, and supporting Pakistan’s critical effort in combating radical Islamic terrorists.
Never again can we allow Islamic radicals to establish safe havens to recruit, train for and plot attacks against America, as they did on September 11. When terrorists are constantly running for their lives, it is harder for them to attack us. Targeting, capturing, and killing these terrorists must continue to be driven by America’s military power, our intelligence-gathering resources and cooperation with our allies.
Of course, America cannot shoulder this burden alone. While our support is vital, Afghanistan’s long-term security requires that Afghans take ownership for securing their country and developing a viable state. As I reviewed Afghan National Army training exercises last week, it was clear significant progress has been made. But such gains will be short-lived if we don’t support their efforts to overcome the underlying challenges of poor education, illiteracy, drug addiction, corruption, fear of the Taliban’s return, and lack of basic technical expertise. For example, some of the Afghan men serving in their armed forces have never driven a vehicle before, much less specialized vehicles for troop transport or mine-clearing.
Providing adequate security will allow Afghan leaders to better focus their energies on developing the institutions that will strengthen governance and the rule of law. If the Afghan people are to trust in their public servants, they must be assured that no crime, particularly corruption, will be tolerated. And if their people are to establish businesses and attract long-term economic development investments that help wean them off the opium trade, Afghanistan must become a country where basic property and commercial laws are respected and enforced.
Beyond Afghanistan’s own efforts to shape its destiny, success there will also hinge largely on our relationship with Pakistan and that nation’s ability to combat the threat of Islamic radicalism. Today, al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups control large swaths of Pakistan’s territory where the government is unable or simply unwilling to go on the offensive. Much like they did in Afghanistan prior to September 11, terrorists operate with impunity and are able to plot attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan as well as Western targets.
Pakistan’s challenges are serious and require an international commitment to address them. Their growing problem with violent radical Islamic terrorism must be met with international support, cooperation, and encouragement. The U.S. must continue to assist the Pakistani people and their government by providing military equipment, intelligence, and training to help defeat Islamic terrorists. Their severe economic crisis, which nearly led to the collapse of the coalition government, requires attention and assistance. We must also leverage our close relationship with India to help improve Indian-Pakistani relations so that Pakistan can place more focus and resources on the threat posed by insurgents and terrorists. However, in helping Pakistan, the American people have a right to demand greater transparency and increased cooperation.
None of these goals are easily achievable. Therefore, while America’s involvement and military presence in Afghanistan won’t be infinite, it cannot be captive to an artificial timeline. We should reject artificial timelines for troop withdrawals. The very prospect of troop withdrawals hinders the growth of an Afghan state. While abroad, I repeatedly heard from our military, the Afghan government, and people on the street that the Afghan people will not take steps to secure their future if they think America will leave on its own timeline before a viable government is established. They won’t join the police or the army. They won’t run for office. They won’t send their daughters to school. They won’t do any of these things so long as they believe the Taliban could come back to punish them for it.
To that end, success in Afghanistan should be measured by our ability to turn over security and governance responsibilities to its people. Benchmarks should be applied that reflect the level of competence of the Afghan government, particularly at the local level, and in developing a judicial system that properly punishes and deters criminal activities, especially corruption.
This is a difficult assignment, but we have the right plan and a good team led by Gen. David Petraeus and thousands of brave men and women. Together with NATO and responsible partners from the international community, we must build on the security gains our forces have achieved to give Afghanistan a real shot at success. In doing so, I believe Afghanistan can become a self-sufficient ally in the fight against Islamic extremism. Such an outcome is essential not only for Afghanistan’s security, but America’s as well.
— Marco Rubio (R.) is a U.S. senator from Florida and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and its Select Committee on Intelligence.