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.

The backchannel word from the Obama administration is that the killing of Osama bin Laden could likely hasten the end of America’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. One senior official – unnamed in The Washington Post this week – went so far as to say, “It changes everything.”

After nearly 10 years of war there, let’s hope this is true. But the administration must not let the exuberance of the moment prompt a policy change that’s based on presumption instead of facts on the ground.

For now, the felling of the world’s most wanted terrorist and its effect on the Afghan war must be couched in the conditional, what it could mean.

Bin Laden’s death could light a fire under talks with the Taliban that lead to a political solution in Afghanistan. Taliban leaders hiding in Pakistan may be more willing to negotiate now that they’ve seen stark proof of America’s persistence and willingness to take unilateral action against an enemy deep inside Pakistan.

Experts also point out that the Taliban’s protection of Al Qaeda, a promise made more than a decade ago, is based more on personal ties – a pledge to bin Laden himself, not necessarily his network or ideology. His demise, then, might clear a hurdle to talks, which were beginning to show signs of progress even before Sunday’s raid.

(For an in-depth Monitor report on the prospect for talks, click here.)

The fallout from the killing of bin Laden could, too, help move up plans for withdrawal of US troops in Afghanistan. An initial drawdown is scheduled to start in July, with the bulk of allied forces not expected to leave until the end of 2014.

But the pullout may quicken if Al Qaeda crumbles without its leader. After all, the goal in Afghanistan is to prevent it from ever again becoming a safe haven and springboard for international jihad by Al Qaeda.

Meanwhile, opinion may shift to favor those in the administration and Congress who argue that the way to fight this war is through special operations – like the one on bin Laden’s compound – rather than 100,000 US troops on the ground. Budget constraints, public opinion against the war, and election pressures could reinforce this view.

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.

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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