Wither the Afghan War

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A U.S. soldier pulls security in an Afghan apricot grove / DoD photo by Joshua Grenier

So now that Osama bin Laden has gone on to his just deserts, what impact — if any — will his demise have on the war in Afghanistan next door?

The military answer: none.

The political answer: accelerate that troop pullout.

The nightmare that was 9/11 has effectively ended with bin Laden’s death. Al Qaeda had become a marginalized force in recent years, and Ayman al-Zawariri, bin Laden’s deputy and presumed successor, lacks bin Laden’s charisma, if that’s what it was.

So pressure will increase to speed up the withdrawal of some of the 100,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan. Obama is expected to begin pulling some of them out starting in July. “That is the single biggest reason we went into Afghanistan: to get Osama bin Laden,” Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., said following the al Qaeda leader’s demise. “I think the fact that bin Laden is dead makes a better case for moving out.”

What concerns the Pentagon, and the White House, is that it’s not just liberal Democrats floating such notions. Richard Haass, is president of the Council on Foreign Relations. A Republican by trade — he worked in President George W. Bush’s State Department as a key aide to Colin Powell — he believes the Osama killing highlights a better way to tame the world than deploying tens of thousands of U.S. troops overseas. “I believe it raises questions about our strategy in Afghanistan,” he said. “To me, it shows the continued promise of tactical counter-terrorism operations, and it reinforces also the question of whether the course we’re on — which has a large element of nation-building, and capacity-building, and counterinsurgency with Afghanistan — whether that can succeed.” That also happens to be Vice President Joe Biden’s preferred course.

But Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., believes bin Laden and Afghanistan are independent of one another. “I’ve already heard a few calls that we quickly withdraw from Afghanistan because the war is over and because bin Laden is dead,” he said. “If we did that, we would repeat a mistake that we’ve made once before when we pulled out of Afghanistan and that region after the Soviets did, and that invited ultimately the Taliban and al-Qaida into Afghanistan, and from Afghanistan they attacked us on 9/11.”

A pledge from Taliban leaders — at least most Taliban leaders — that they would no longer offer sanctuary to al Qaeda could let the U.S. draw down its Afghan-based forces faster. White House homeland security chief John Brennan said as much Monday: “We need to make sure that that part of the world — which has given rise to a number of groups, al Qaeda, others — that they cannot use that area with impunity to carry out attacks.” And that requires Pakistan’s help.

While bin Laden had a grand goal of recreating the ancient Islamic caliphate, the Taliban in Afghanistan have more modest aims: regain power and drive foreign forces from their country. That suggests the Taliban, if not the American public, won’t look to bin Laden’s death for insights into what they should do in the coming months. There has long been a recognition that negotiations with the Taliban are not only possible, but ultimately required, to bring some form of stability to Afghanistan.

For now, it would seem that Obama’s remote-control slaying of bin Laden gives him some wiggle room. If he feels he needs more time, and troops, on the ground, it’s likely he could fight for them and prevail, at least in the short term. But he faces re-election next year, and that creates counterveiling pressure to bring the troops home sooner rather than later.

Gideon Rose, the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, senses in bin Laden’s death an echo of Vietnam in this summer’s looming debate over Afghanistan. “It actually might open space for the Obama Administration to ease its way out of Afghanistan, if it so chooses,” he argues. “Not because the threat will be dramatically less, but because they’ll be able to, in the old phrase — I think it was Senator [George] Aiken [R-Vt.] in Vietnam — `declare victory and go home.'”