Ten Years Later: Is Anyone Paying Attention?

Earlier this month, we passed the decade marker for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but most Americans would have never known. It is long past time that we focus on Afghanistan, and avoid walking backwards into an open-ended military commitment that could last another ten years or more.

When I cast my lone vote against authorizing a blank check for war, I was concerned that it had opened the door to war without end. Ten years and $460 billion later, it is clear there is no military solution. Not only does the U.S. policy of endless war erode global peace and security, it directly undermines the fight against poverty at home.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, "the bombs in Vietnam explode at home; they destroy the hopes and possibilities of a decent America." Once again, poverty in America is growing at precisely the same time that our resources are being spent in foreign ventures with little justification. There are countless ways our tax dollars funding the war in Afghanistan could be better spent.

How about health care for 50 million low-income children? Hiring 1.5 million elementary school teachers? Awarding scholarships to send 16 million students from working families to universities? How about funding job training for returning veterans and retraining for displaced workers? We need smart kids and smart investments, not smart bombs and unnecessary wars. United States national security has always been tied to our strong economy and innovation; our upside-down funding priorities are robbing us of a secure future.

With fewer than 100 Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, we must invest our resources in a smarter security strategy; we are not facing down nation-states, but rather bleeding our economy dry with a massive and expensive military occupation against scattered terrorists who are not confined by borders. After stationing hundreds of thousands of boots on the ground in Afghanistan for almost a decade, it was ultimately intelligence and international cooperation that led to Osama bin Laden's end in Pakistan.

Ambassador Karl Eikenberry noted the obvious in his cables from Afghanistan: a small investment in development can often accomplish more than the work of thousands of soldiers, at far less cost in lives and money. With smart investment, we can increase opportunity, prosperity and security throughout Afghanistan. There are alternative ways to stabilize Afghanistan and undercut terrorist threats that are far less expensive than military presence.

The most successful development projects in Afghanistan do not depend on the military and are Afghan-led with local buy-in and community empowerment. The celebrated National Solidarity Program has provided block grants to Community Development Councils (CDC), on which democratically elected locals identify, manage, and implement development projects. For a fraction of the cost of occupying a rural area, we can use smart investment vehicles like CDCs to address the impoverished conditions that are still widespread throughout Afghanistan ten years after the U.S. invasion.

It is even more urgent that we stop wasting money on a counterproductive military presence in Afghanistan when so many people are suffering at home. According to the Commission on Wartime Contracting, military contractors wasted as much as $60 billion in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over the same period, another 2.6 million Americans slipped below the poverty line, marking the highest poverty rate in 52 years. Economists are calling this period of economic decline America's "lost decade."

Congress faces enormous decisions on the fiscal future of the United States. Social Security, Medicare, and other critical domestic programs could be on the chopping block as the "supercommittee" develops a plan to reduce annual budget deficits over the next ten years. The Pentagon presents plenty of opportunities to achieve savings. We must end the wars, audit Defense Department spending, and realign Pentagon priorities to address emerging and unconventional threats to our national security.

In looking forward ten years, we must look back at this "lost decade" of war and tragic lost opportunities. We must choose building bridges over bombers, deploying teachers at home over troops abroad, training doctors over drone pilots, and investing in our future rather than costly and useless military confrontation.

If we fail to act, we risk depriving an entire generation of the opportunity to contribute, to invent, and to thrive -- and our economy will continue to suffer. That is not the American promise. We must resolve to restore the American Dream that has been dashed for so many hard-working families. Ten years is ten years too long for this wasteful war; it is time to bring our troops and our tax dollars home.