What the death of Osama bin Laden means for Afghanistan

The killing of bin Laden did not end the Afghan war. But it did highlight for the US the usefulness of using military bases there for striking jihadi leaders in Pakistan.

Baz Ratner/Reuters
US soldiers from 3rd platoon Bronco troop 5-20 infantry Regiment attached to 82nd Airborne patrol with Afghan national Army soldiers in Zharay district, Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan on April 22.

The killing of Osama bin Laden last year in Pakistan had little effect on the Afghan war.

But it did highlight the usefulness of US military bases in Afghanistan for launching strikes against leading militants in Pakistan – especially important as the US and Afghanistan prepare to finalize a strategic partnership agreement in the coming days.

If the US didn’t have access to a base in Afghanistan near the Pakistan border ahead of its raid last year on the bin Laden compound, the US operatives would have faced markedly more risk. Now that militants seen as a threat to the US are believed to be based mostly in Pakistan, US officials will likely want the option to use the military bases it has in Afghanistan to conduct antiterrorism efforts in Pakistan after 2014.
This may prove a point of contention among Afghans. Many have expressed reluctance to the US having access to long-term bases that could be used to attack neighbors or other regional powers.

“Still a lot of time is needed to make the Afghan security forces self-sufficient and the Afghan government able to deal with the neighboring countries,” says Noor-ul-haq Ulumi, a former Afghan Army general.

But even if Afghanistan insisted on the US not using bases for attacking neighbors, he says, the US would likely find a way to go around it.

“Military bases in Afghanistan are useless unless they target Al Qaeda everywhere from these bases,” agrees Mohammad Naeem Lalai Hamidzai, a member of parliament from Kandahar and a member of internal security commission.

Afghan and US officials agreed on a final draft of the strategic partnership agreement almost two weeks ago. Though the details of the agreement have yet to be made public and it is subject to internal review in both countries, it is not expected to address the role of US military forces if they are permitted to stay after 2014.

A separate security agreement will likely address this issue and deal with questions about what activities will be permitted at any US bases that remain after 2014.

If Afghans give the go-ahead to long-term US bases, politicians have said they will expect American forces to protect Afghanistan if it is attacked. This provision could provide a loophole, wherein US drone operations flown out of Afghanistan over Pakistan and Iran, or raids like the one that killed bin Laden are technically listed as in the interest of Afghan security.

“Even after 2014, when the Americans have their military bases and they go into Pakistan after Al Qaeda or anyone, it’s good for the security of Afghanistan,” says Kamal Nasir Osuli, a member of parliament from Khost Province.

President Hamid Karzai and President Obama have said they both want to see the agreement signed before the NATO summit in Chicago on May 20.

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