WASHINGTON - In late October, I traveled to Afghanistan on my 12th trip since the start of the conflict there. I was struck by the rapid and positive changes particularly in the last few years that are transforming security and daily life for the people of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is more secure today, even as - and I would argue as a result of - the Afghan Army and police have taken over from U.S. forces the responsibility for protecting the Afghan people. Afghan security forces have held their own against a resilient insurgency far more successfully and quickly than many predicted.
But just as striking are the changes in the Afghan economy and Afghan society. During this trip we drove across Kabul to visit the American University of Afghanistan - one of dozens of new colleges and universities now open in the country. As we drove through the city center, we saw streets full of cars, rows of shops, and new buildings going up.
Sen. Carl Levin
The American University of Afghanistan is a truly remarkable story. In the seven years since it opened its doors, the American University has grown from 53 students to over 1,000, including more than 300 women.
During my meeting with the university's students and faculty, one student spoke eloquently about his life experience and what the U.S. presence in Afghanistan has meant to him. As a child, he and his family had fled the fighting in Afghanistan, taking refuge across the border in Iran. After the Taliban were driven out, he returned to Afghanistan. He taught himself to read and write while working, and eventually was accepted at the American University. He is now interviewing to be a sales manager at Siemens, and is applying for a Fulbright scholarship. He said he has these opportunities because of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and he asked that I pass a message to the American people: "Thank you."
The American people deserve to hear that their contributions in Afghanistan have made a tangible difference in the lives of Afghans in a relatively short time. And we haven't just worked for the good of the Afghan people, but for our own security. We should never forget that we ended the safe haven from which al Qaeda attacked us on 9/11 and removed the Taliban government that harbored Osama bin Laden and his followers.
Yet a public opinion poll in July found that 67 percent of the Americans surveyed thought that the Afghan war was "not worth fighting."
The American people have been deprived of the sense of accomplishment that they would receive if they were provided a balanced view. They have been robbed by a media that reports the problems, but not the progress. Our troops have been denied the credit they so greatly deserve for the positive changes in Afghanistan that help give meaning to the sacrifices of our service men and women and their families.
It is certainly true that the Taliban have not been eliminated, and is likely to remain a significant force in many sparsely populated rural areas of Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. But our military commanders tell us that an extraordinary security transition has taken place over the past 10 months. Afghan forces have taken over combat operations throughout the country.
Afghan forces will continue to need our training and assistance through 2014, when the U.S. combat presence there ends, and beyond - to build their logistics, intelligence, air support and other key capabilities. And they will need financial support over the coming years to sustain those capabilities. I recognize that for many war-weary Americans, we've already invested enough in Afghanistan, but our sustained commitment will go a long way to solidify the hard-won gains from a decade of fighting, protect the massive changes in Afghan society, and ensure against a renewed al Qaeda threat from Afghanistan.
Many challenges remain. But I am encouraged by the commitment of the Afghan security forces to take responsibility for defending their nation, the growing confidence of the Afghan people in those forces, and the belief among a majority of Afghans that their country is moving in the right direction.
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Carl Levin is the senior U.S. senator from Michigan and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.