With Osama bin Laden dead, what next for US mission in Afghanistan?

Two experts before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday offered contrasting assessments of Afghanistan policy after the killing of Osama bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan.

By , Staff writer

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    United States military troops watch breaking news on the announcement by President Barack Obama that Osama bin Laden had been killed, at the USO at Kandahar Airfield, southern Afghanistan, on Monday, May 2.
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What, if anything, does the death of Osama bin Laden mean for US policy in Afghanistan?

Two experts before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which on Tuesday began two days of hearings on US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, offered contrasting answers.

Noting that Mr. bin Laden was captured and killed in Pakistan, Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, called Afghanistan a “strategic distraction, pure and simple.” He advocated a rapid and sharp reduction in the number of US troops there.

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A suitable number of troops to match the priority level that Afghanistan represents would be between 10,000 and 25,000 – as opposed to the 100,000 US troops there now – said Dr. Haass, who served in the State Department under President George W. Bush.

“I disagree that Afghanistan is a strategic distraction,” countered Anne-Marie Slaughter, who until February was director of policy planning for the State Department. Saying that Afghanistan cannot be separated from Pakistan, where Al Qaeda remains a potent force, Dr. Slaughter added, “Afghanistan is only a distraction until the next terrorist attack.”

Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in announcing the hearings Monday that, while bin Laden’s death “closes an important chapter in our war against extremists,” it does not end the Al Qaeda threat and “highlights the need to thoroughly evaluate our strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

President Obama is committed to beginning some degree of drawdown of US troops from Afghanistan in July. But he has also committed, along with NATO, to keeping some level of troops on the ground until 2014.

In the coming weeks, Mr. Obama will be deciding whether the initial drawdown in Afghanistan will be symbolic or more substantial. The president most likely will be able to use the successful secret operation against bin Laden to back up whatever course he chooses, many say. But they also expect that advisers, experts, and constituent groups will use bin Laden’s demise to promote their respective positions – as happened at the Senate hearing Tuesday.

Two competing perspectives to watch for: one, that the war in Afghanistan was from the beginning about getting bin Laden, and with that done, let’s get out; and two, the blow to Al Qaeda and the winds of change wafting in from the Arab Spring open new doors for political settlement in Afghanistan, so let’s not squander the opportunity – not to mention a decade of invested blood and treasure.

In his Senate testimony, Haass said the US should begin a “phasing out” of combat operations, a move he said would save millions of dollars and hundreds of American lives.

As for current approaches under way or ideas floating around for dealing with Afghanistan, Haass said he is “skeptical” about prospects for dialogue between the Afghan government and the Taliban. And he’s even “more skeptical” about encouraging dialogue between India and Pakistan as a means of addressing Afghanistan.

The United States should pursue its own dialogue with those Taliban leaders who are “willing to engage” and to recognize the requirements the US has set, such as ending violence and recognizing Afghans’ rights, Haass said.

Slaughter, who returned to Princeton University from the State Department, said the US should use the death of bin Laden to “pivot towards a comprehensive political settlement” in Afghanistan.

Such a shift would take many forms, she said, but one example she gave was a village-by-village approach to aid distribution that would reward those places exemplifying good – by having corruption-free governance and a commitment to providing basic services with more assistance.

Senator Kerry’s committee learned Monday that it will be able to cull from the upcoming personal experience in Afghanistan of a Senate colleague as it continues assessing US policy. Kerry’s colleague from Massachusetts, Scott Brown (R), announced Monday that he will fulfill an obligation to the Massachusetts Army National Guard with a two-week assignment this summer in Afghanistan.

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