Afghanistan and Pakistan
Afghanistan-based al-Qaida terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, and Afghanistan and Pakistan remain a central front in our fight against Islamic extremists. The previous administration took its eye off the ball in Afghanistan by invading Iraq, stretching our resources too thin and distracting us from the war against al-Qaida. But in recent years, the United States and our allies have committed enough personnel and resources to realistically address the threats we face in Afghanistan, and our men and women in uniform continue to courageously meet these challenges. Now, Afghan National Security Forces are taking the lead in providing for their own national security, allowing the U.S. to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan, and are preparing to completely withdrawn from that country by the end of 2014.
Afghanistan is where al-Qaida plotted its 9/11 attacks against us, and our forces achieved a major objective by killing Osama bin Laden. International Security Assistance Force troops and Afghan security forces continue to take the fight to al-Qaida and the Taliban, but Islamic extremists in the region still present a threat. As the United States draws down its forces, it’s time for the Afghan government to start taking the lead in securing its own country. The importance of the overall mission to achieve stability hasn’t changed, and the United States must continue to support the Afghans in this effort. It is in our national interest to continue to support this mission because we can't afford for the region to become a haven for terrorists to attack Americans again or for nuclear weapons in neighboring Pakistan to fall into the wrong hands.
As a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate's Select Committee on Intelligence, it is my duty to oversee our country's military commitments, ensure that our troops have the resources they need to achieve their mission, and see to it that our military and civilian efforts in the region are supported by the best intelligence possible. In this capacity, I receive regular briefings from senior leaders in the military and intelligence communities. I have also made a number of visits to Afghanistan and Pakistan in order to gain an understanding of the realities that our troops face on the ground.
Although many things have changed in the region over the years, one thing that remains constant is the dedication and professionalism of our troops. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines from Colorado continue to do heroic and essential work in Afghanistan, and I am always mindful of their hard work and sacrifice in defense of our security and our freedom.
While the road to stability in Afghanistan is still fraught with challenges, the most viable way to sustain security gains is to build the capabilities of the Afghans themselves. Although our mission to train and mentor Afghan National Security Forces has been a top priority for some time, we are beginning to hand off security responsibilities to Afghan forces, who will have the lead security role throughout the country by late 2014. The security situation in Pakistan is also a significant part of the challenge we face, and the U.S. government must continue to hold its leaders accountable — a message I have delivered to the highest levels of the Pakistani government.
I am deeply disturbed by the trend of so-called “insider attacks” by Afghan security forces against our troops, and by the increasing number of Taliban attacks against civilian targets. I continue to monitor the situation closely and receive frequent updates from our senior military leaders and diplomatic personnel in the region, and I will continue to support the brave Coloradans — and all American service members — who are serving with great courage and honor.
As we move forward, I intend to keep our mission in Afghanistan focused on achievable and specific goals that rely not only on our military power but also on our diplomacy and civilian expertise.
Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) are the signature injuries of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. That's why I urged the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to streamline the process for treating veterans with PTS who were still waiting to access the benefits they deserved. In response to my request, the VA announced that PTS claims would no longer require a claims adjudicator to corroborate a veteran's PTS injuries before benefits can be awarded. This change has helped veterans get the treatment they need more quickly. I also established a bipartisan Joint Taskforce on Post-Traumatic Stress — composed of clinicians, behavioral health experts and Colorado veterans — to explore the issues veterans with PTS face and provide recommendations for improving assistance.
Colorado's military operations are vital to our national defense, and I'm extremely proud of the airspace warning and control mission performed by the Colorado Air National Guard. Our state's strategic location, excellent weather and easy access to training ranges make Buckley Air Force Base an ideal location to base F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. That's why I'm asking the Air Force to reevaluate its criteria prior to the next round of F-35 basing decisions so that the Colorado Air Guard can continue to keep watch over our skies.
In the post-9/11 world, the United States faces a wide range of evolving threats to our national security, including a Middle East in turmoil, international cyberattacks and the long-term implications of the recent intelligence leaks. As a member of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee and the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, one of my most important jobs is ensuring that we keep America safe while also properly safeguarding our privacy rights and constitutional liberties. Frank discussions, like the one I had recently with former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director Leon Panetta at an event hosted by The Counterterrorism Educational Learning Lab, help us understand how to overcome these pressing challenges. If you were not able to join us, you can watch the forum online.
Military families and victims of natural disasters — like Colorado's devastating floods — shouldn't suffer if Washington gridlock and partisan stalemates lead to a government shutdown. That's why I introduced the bipartisan Military Pay Protection Act with my colleague Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) to ensure that our men and women in uniform and the civilian personnel who support them on the battlefield and during disaster-recovery efforts do not suffer if Congress is unable or unwilling to pay its bills. I refuse to allow our military families and victims of natural disasters to be used as political leverage by Beltway politicians.
Pinon Canyon is vitally important to Colorado's ranchers, soldiers, and economy. But for many years, southeastern Colorado's ranchers have been concerned that the Army might have plans to expand the training site beyond its current boundaries. After many months of work with Army leaders and members of the southeastern Colorado community, I was proud to bring together local leaders and Assistant Secretary of the Army Katherine Hammack to chart a way forward that will ensure Fort Carson's soldiers and local ranchers each have the certainty they need to move forward. At my request, Assistant Secretary Hammack made it clear that the Army will take steps to withdraw its land-acquisition waiver. I will continue my efforts to ensure that our ranchers can rest assured that their land is safe, while protecting the land our soldiers need to train.