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Bin Laden raid: A model for how US should fight Afghanistan war?

The US is now waging a troop-heavy counterinsurgency to win Afghan hearts and minds. But the bin Laden raid has boosted critics, who say the Afghanistan war should involve smaller forces and a greater reliance on targeted strikes.

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Indeed, to some experts, bin Laden’s death is evidence that the current counterinsurgency strategy is working in the most violent areas of the country. “What we’re slowing seeing is that the strategy is actually starting to work in the south. It has actually seized the momentum back from the insurgency, and has them on the back heels,” says Jeffrey Dressler, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington. “I find it troubling that given the state of play we’re talking about rushing to the exits.”

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The point is not simply to eliminate Al Qaeda operatives, which are estimated to number in the dozens in Afghanistan, Mr. Dressler says. Troop operations in Afghanistan, in conjunction Pakistani military operations across the border, are designed to strike not only Al Qaeda, but also Taliban and other insurgent groups that work with the terrorist group.

“They’re designed to squeeze these guys in between, keep them as constrained as possible, and cut down on the amount of terrain they’re able to use,” he says.

US military officials tend to agree, noting that US troops are still needed for a wide array of other security needs, such as training Afghan security forces.

Special operations strike forces like the Navy SEALs and Delta soldiers often have “great impact, but they’re not the be-all and end-all,” says Maj. Gen. Richard Mills, commanding general of the first Marine Expeditionary Force, who recently returned from serving as commander of US troops in southwest Afghanistan. “You don’t play golf with one club.”

Consequences of change

Pull US troops out, and Al Qaeda operatives, in cooperation with other insurgent groups, will move into the ungoverned spaces and establish bases. That is essentially what had happened in Afghasnistan before the surge, Dressler says: “Things spiraled out of control, and nothing short of a massive troop surge was going to get the job done.”

It also happened last spring. When military commanders closed small US combat outposts in the violent but remote Korengal Valley to instead focus on protecting Afghan population centers, Al Qaeda operatives entered and set up training camps.

Yet what happened in the Korengal Valley has also bolstered proponents of the smaller footprint "targeted strikes" approach. After Al Qaeda moved back in, US military aircraft bombed the camp and killed a number of foreign fighters, including a wanted Saudi militant.

If US troops pull out of Afghanistan, the Pentagon can do the same thing – destroy training camps if they crop up, says David Rittgers, a former special forces officer and analyst at the CATO Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington. What’s more, in Afghanistan, unlike Pakistan, US forces would have more leeway to operate, says Mr. Rittgers.

“It would be very similar to what we’re doing in Pakistan," he says, "but we’d have more freedom of movement to use drones, and even to use" troops or strike forces.

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