After nearly 12 years of war in Afghanistan, a significant investment of U.S. resources and the deaths of more than 2,100 U.S. servicemen and women, Americans are understandably tired, and some question our continued involvement. But when assessing the wars worth, the progress made and our continued presence, we must remember why we deployed U.S. forces to Afghanistan in the first place. We also must consider what we have accomplished to date and the prospects for achieving our stated objectives.
It was the vicious attacks of 9/11, planned by al-Qaida from its safe haven in Afghanistan under the protection of the Taliban, that brought us to Afghanistan. Our objective was to prevent the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations from which attacks could be launched on the U.S. or our allies. In 2001, we put U.S. forces in this country because it was in our national interests to do so. In 2013, U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan because those national interests have not changed.
An important lesson learned over the past decade is that constant pressure on extremist networks is a critical part of undermining their ability to plan and conduct operations from this region. Such pressure, together with political, diplomatic and economic efforts, is going to be required post-2014 to continue denying them safe haven.
Over the past 12 years, we have accomplished a great deal. The presence, partnership and persistence of U.S. and coalition forces have enabled the Afghan people, government and security forces to make noteworthy advances in several areas.
On the security front, since June 18, Afghan National Security Forces have been in the lead for security across the country. Now halfway through this years fighting season, Afghan forces have demonstrated they can hold their own against the Taliban and extremist networks. They are planning, leading and executing complex missions. They have continued to grow in size and capability. But work remains to be done.
Over the past few years, we rapidly fielded Afghan forces with a priority on getting them into the fight. Now, we have shifted our focus to quality and sustainability. In order for the Afghan forces to secure their nation following the end of the current International Security Assistance Force mission in December 2014, we must continue to assist the Afghans in developing the systems, processes and institutions necessary to support a modern Army and police force.
For the Afghan people, the accomplishments over the past 12 years have been significant. In education, the number of schools has increased from approximately 1,000 during the Taliban era to more than 14,000 today, and the number of teachers has gone from 20,000 to 175,000.
Twelve years ago, there were approximately 1 million students, none of them girls, and today nearly 8 million Afghan children attend school, more than a third of them girls. More than 100,000 Afghan students are expected to enter post-secondary schools this year.
In the area of health, life expectancy for Afghans has increased 8 percent in just over a decade, access to basic health services has increased 85 percent and the mortality rate for children under 5 has dropped from 257 per 1,000 live births to 97 per 1,000. Infant mortality has dropped 53 percent, and the maternal mortality rate has decreased 80 percent. In infrastructure development, the number of telephone users has increased more than 1,800 percent since 2001, and nearly 60 percent of the population today has cellular phones. Afghanistan has gone from approximately 18,000 km of roads in 2001 to more than 42,000 km today. There were very few TV and radio stations during the Taliban era, and today there are about 75 TV stations and 175 radio stations serving the Afghan people.
While Afghanistan still faces many challenges, it is headed in the right direction toward a peaceful, stable and unified outcome. A political solution will be needed to end decades of war in Afghanistan. We can best support an outcome that protects our national interests by remaining engaged in this region, supporting the Afghan people and the ANSF, holding the Afghan government accountable for needed reforms and facilitating a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
The cost of continued engagement in Afghanistan will not be inexpensive and must be balanced with our many other commitments. As we found out on 9/11, however, the cost of neglect can be far, far more expensive.
Brig. Gen. Laura Richardson, U.S. Army, is the deputy chief of staff for communications of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.