Bin Laden and the war in Afghanistan: Why the U.S. is not declaring victory yet

Laura Rozen

The killing of Osama bin Laden in a firefight with U.S. special forces Sunday would seem to be one of the rare recent "champagne moments" in U.S. foreign  policy. But U.S. national security officials and experts were muted in discussing this triumph, opting instead to stress the challenges the United States continues to face from violent Islamist extremism--and to observe that those challenges are nowhere more confounding than in Afghanistan.

"Once the dust settles, there are so few apparently al Qaeda left and their spiritual leader is now dead , that it will raise questions about, what are we really doing in Afghanistan," former deputy secretary of State Richard Armitage told The Envoy Monday. "Intelligence officials have recently said there are less than 100 al Qaeda left. Does this justify having 140,000 [U.S.-led] troops in Afghanistan?"

Armitage and other U.S. regional experts said American policy makers are going to have to take some time--and a good deal of deliberation--to answer that question.

"Obviously, the Taliban has launched their spring offensive and it's unclear exactly what kind of firepower it has," a U.S. official who works on Afghanistan told The Envoy Monday on condition of anonymity.

But the "tie-in" between Afghan insurgents and Osama bin Laden "has always been a bit overhyped in terms of linkages," the U.S. official said. "The administration has said publicly that there are only 90 or so remaining members of al Qaeda. These guys who are carrying out attacks in Afghanistan are not necessarily getting their marching orders from bin Laden."

"Most Taliban members are not fighting for a greater cause," he continued. "Most are fighting because they are jobless and the Taliban pays them."

Other analysts point out there are some broader strategic opportunities opening up for the United States in the region now. "The death of Osama bin Laden provides an opportunity for Pakistan to eliminate its support for the Afghan Taliban and materially affect the length and course of the war in Afghanistan," John Nagl, president of the Center for New American Security and a former senior U.S. military officer and specialist on counterinsurgency, told The Envoy.

Analysts agree that the stunning news of bin Laden's death will give President Barack Obama more political space to reassess the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. But they also note that the U.S. government has been in the midst of this reappraisal for some time already. "I think it does give him more political latitude, but I don't know what he will do about it," Daniel Byman, a former Clinton administration national security official with Georgetown University said of Obama.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, had been scheduled to provide his own recommendation on the scale of the U.S. troop commitment to the White House, as initial pullouts are slated to begin in July. But U.S. officials have previously indicated the United States won't institute a major troop withdrawal in Afghanistan until 2014. That's the point at which Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said Afghan security forces will be prepared to take the lead in securing their own country.

Given this and other larger-scale structural issues, observers aren't sure that the death of bin Laden will affect U.S. war planning in the country.

"The U.S. intervened in Afghanistan in 2001 for two related reasons: one was to prevent Afghanistan from being a haven for terrorists," former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Jim Dobbins told the Envoy Monday. "But the second was to prevent Afghanistan from being an ally of terrorists.  Under the Taliban, "Afghanistan was  not just a sanctuary, but an active ally of Al Qaeda," Dobbins explained. "It was the only government in the world that was prepared to support it . . . . That makes it different from Pakistan or Yemen or Somalia."

But the current Afghan government does not actively support Al Qaeda, a reporter pointed out, while bin Laden was actually found in a military town near the capital of ostensible U.S. ally Pakistan--where the U.S. has no forces stationed.

"It's a different government because we intervened and because we stayed," Dobbins responded. Al Qaeda "is in Pakistan because we are in Afghanistan. If we were not in Afghanistan, it would be there."

So almost 10 years after U.S. forces toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, when will it ever be safe enough to leave?

Dobbins outlined three possible options, any one of which would enable the U.S. to reduce its engagement in Afghanistan.

"The first is: the insurgents break their ranks with Al Qaeda," Dobbins said, noting the Obama administration has pursued explicit talks with the Taliban in pursuit of this goal. "The second is that Al Qaeda goes way."

A third possibility, Dobbins said, is that the current regime in Kabul becomes robust enough that it can prevent a Taliban take-over on its own. This, Dobbins notes, is the factor that "we have the greatest control over"--and so building up the Karzai government's "indigenous capacity to resist the Taliban . . . is where we are spending the most effort."

(Supporters of Pakistani religious party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam rally to condemn killing of Osama bin Laden in Quetta, Pakistan on Monday, May 2, 2011.: Arshad Butt/AP)