Good evening. To the United States Corps of Cadets, to the men and women of our armed services and to my fellow Americans: I want to speak to you tonight about our effort in Afghanistan the nature of our commitment there, the scope of our interests and the strategy that my Administration will pursue to bring this war to a successful conclusion. It is an honor for me to do so here at West Point where so many men and women have prepared to stand up for our security and to represent what is finest about our country.
To address these issues, it is important to recall why America and our allies were compelled to fight a war in Afghanistan in the first place. We did not ask for this fight. On September 11, 2001, 19 men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people. They struck at our military and economic nerve centers. They took the lives of innocent men, women and children without regard to their faith or race or station. Were it not for the heroic actions of the passengers onboard one of those flights, they could have also struck at one of the great symbols of our democracy in Washington and killed many more.
As we know, these men belonged to al-Qaeda a group of extremists who have distorted and defiled Islam, one of the world's great religions, to justify the slaughter of innocents. Al-Qaeda's base of operations was in Afghanistan, where they were harbored by the Taliban a ruthless, repressive and radical movement that seized control of that country after it was ravaged by years of Soviet occupation and civil war, and after the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere.
Just days after 9/11, Congress authorized the use of force against al-Qaeda and those who harbored them an authorization that continues to this day. The vote in the Senate was 98 to 0. The vote in the House was 420 to 1. For the first time in its history, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked Article 5 the commitment that says an attack on one member nation is an attack on all. And the United Nations Security Council endorsed the use of all necessary steps to respond to the 9/11 attacks. America, our allies and the world were acting as one to destroy al-Qaeda's terrorist network and to protect our common security.
Under the banner of this domestic unity and international legitimacy and only after the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden we sent our troops into Afghanistan. Within a matter of months, al-Qaeda was scattered, and many of its operatives were killed. The Taliban was driven from power and pushed back on its heels. A place that had known decades of fear now had reason to hope. At a conference convened by the U.N., a provisional government was established under President Hamid Karzai. And an International Security Assistance Force was established to help bring a lasting peace to a war-torn country.
Then, in early 2003, the decision was made to wage a second war in Iraq. The wrenching debate over the Iraq war is well known and need not be repeated here. It is enough to say that for the next six years, the Iraq war drew the dominant share of our troops, our resources, our diplomacy and our national attention and that the decision to go into Iraq caused substantial rifts between America and much of the world.
Today, after extraordinary costs, we are bringing the Iraq war to a responsible end. We will remove our combat brigades from Iraq by the end of next summer, and all of our troops by the end of 2011. That we are doing so is a testament to the character of our men and women in uniform. Thanks to their courage, grit and perseverance, we have given Iraqis a chance to shape their future, and we are successfully leaving Iraq to its people.
But while we have achieved hard-earned milestones in Iraq, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated. After escaping across the border into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, al-Qaeda's leadership established a safe haven there. Although a legitimate government was elected by the Afghan people, it has been hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an underdeveloped economy and insufficient security forces. Over the last several years, the Taliban has maintained common cause with al-Qaeda, as they both seek an overthrow of the Afghan government. Gradually, the Taliban has begun to take control over swaths of Afghanistan while engaging in increasingly brazen and devastating acts of terrorism against the Pakistani people.
Throughout this period, our troop levels in Afghanistan remained a fraction of what they were in Iraq. When I took office, we had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq at the peak of the war. Commanders in Afghanistan repeatedly asked for support to deal with the re-emergence of the Taliban, but these reinforcements did not arrive. That's why, shortly after taking office, I approved a long-standing request for more troops. After consultations with our allies, I then announced a strategy recognizing the fundamental connection between our war effort in Afghanistan and the extremist safe havens in Pakistan. I set a goal that was narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling and defeating al-Qaeda and its extremist allies, and pledged to better coordinate our military and civilian effort.
Since then, we have made progress on some important objectives. High-ranking al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders have been killed, and we have stepped up the pressure on al-Qaeda worldwide. In Pakistan, that nation's army has gone on its largest offensive in years. In Afghanistan, we and our allies prevented the Taliban from stopping a presidential election, and although it was marred by fraud that election produced a government that is consistent with Afghanistan's laws and constitution.