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The Monitor's View

After bin Laden: Cautionary hopes on Afghanistan war

The death of Osama bin Laden may well hasten the end of the war in Afghanistan. But we don't know that yet, and until the US sees signs of progress, it should stay the course.

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But the US can’t count on the imminent demise of Al Qaeda or a Taliban now ready to talk. The facts on the ground today are a spring offensive by the Taliban after a year in which incidents involving insurgent Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), suicide bombers, and small-fire, rocket, and mortar assaults more than doubled since 2008. Eastern provinces and those near Kabul are infested with insurgents.

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Al Qaeda has suffered heavy losses over time, but it still maintains an alliance with the Taliban and other terrorist groups, based largely in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. And Al Qaeda is still plotting large-scale international attacks and supporting its regional affiliates.

At the same time, the United States and its NATO allies have made progress in Afghanistan – despite incredible corruption and unreliable government partners in Kabul and Islamabad.

The 2010 US military surge has improved security in Afghanistan’s capital and key provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar. The training and building of the Afghan Army, which must eventually assume responsibility for security, is on track.

A “civilian” surge of American diplomats and aid experts is working on everything from agriculture to infrastructure. Afghanistan’s economy is growing rapidly, and 70 percent of Afghans believe their country is headed in the right direction, according to BBC pollsters late last year.

The third leg of US policy – a diplomatic surge, i.e. political reconciliation that breaks the Taliban’s ties to Al Qaeda, ends the insurgancy, and helps to build a more stable Afghanistan and region – is now getting a push as a new American envoy, Marc Grossman, travels the region to support that outcome.

President Obama did not set a particularly high bar in Afghanistan. He is not trying to build a “Central Asian Valhalla,” in the words of his secretary of defense. What he is trying to do is create the conditions that would prevent the re-creation of another safe haven for Al Qaeda where it can again train for a strike at the United States and its allies.

Perhaps a world without bin Laden will hasten the end of the war in Afghanistan, but we don’t know that yet. The US can use the terrorist’s death to further its aims, but until it sees signs of change, it should stay the course.

Withdrawals should be based, as is so often said, on conditions on the ground and on how well America is doing in its goal to disrupt and defeat Al Qaeda.

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