Bin Laden's Death Alters Debate Over Afghanistan

May 24, 2011

Jackie Northam

David Gilkey
Members of the Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment watch as a massive dust storm is just seconds away from enveloping Patrol Base Fires in Sangin District, Helmand province, southern Afghanistan. Roughly 100,000 service members are in Afghanistan, and their future there is being newly considered in Washington after the death of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

The death of Osama bin Laden last month was a huge and much-needed boost for U.S. counterterrorism efforts, but it has also ignited a debate over the ongoing U.S. operation in Afghanistan. On Capitol Hill, many are questioning whether the mission there is worth the financial and human cost now that bin Laden is gone.

It has been nearly 10 years since the first U.S. forces landed in Afghanistan in hot pursuit of bin Laden and his al-Qaida and Taliban affiliates. That manhunt has shifted over the decade, and so too has U.S. strategy and the number of troops — roughly 100,000 American service personnel are now on Afghan soil.

Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, says bin Laden's death provides a new opportunity to re-examine U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

"When you kill the leader of al-Qaida, I think this raises questions about what sort of strategic shifts do we need to make as a result of this," he said.

Katulis says that's particularly true in light of the fact that U.S. intelligence agencies have determined the most imminent terrorist threat comes from Yemen, not militants in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Potential Courses Of Action

Bin Laden's demise has invigorated debate about Afghanistan — from the White House to Congress to the many think tanks scattered across Washington.

Daniel Markey, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says there are essentially three schools of thought: one is that the U.S. should press the military advantage, going in harder and faster and more effectively than before.

Another line of thought, Markey says, "is that this killing of bin Laden might open the door to greater opportunities for reconciliation with members of the Afghan Taliban." Markey adds that the Afghan Taliban might now be feeling more vulnerable and perhaps less connected to the remaining parts of al-Qaida, and more open to negotiations in a way that they weren't before.

The third school of thought is that in the wake of bin Laden's death, the U.S. should declare victory in Afghanistan and pull out, saving American blood and treasure.

Retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, with the Center for a New American Security, says that would be dangerous short-term thinking.

"I think we're conscious that a precipitous withdrawal would be very destabilizing and we'd probably undercut a lot of the gains we've made in recent years," Barno says. He adds that there are very robust discussions going on between all sides of the administration about what's next not only for Afghanistan but also Pakistan.

Tackling The Pakistani Question

The fact that bin Laden had lived for several years and was killed near a key military installation not from Pakistan's capital will help shape the debate, says Markey, because the endgame in Afghanistan will require the help and cooperation of Pakistan.

"The United States, I think, woke up very dramatically after bin Laden's killing to a sense that Pakistan may be in even worse straits than we thought it was ... because there was always a question as to whether Pakistan lacked the capacity or the will to tackle some of the terrorist groups on its soil," Markey said.

President Obama has a couple of months to consider his options. In July, he is due to announce the size of the initial drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. During an earlier strategy debate soon after he took office, Obama agreed to the Pentagon's demands to increase the number of troops.

Katulis, with the Center for American Progress, says this time, it'll be different.

"The fact that he made this bold move and went after bin Laden and got him, I think allows him to set the table in terms of what he wants to do next on Afghanistan," Katulis says. "And despite the questions, quibbles and concerns that are being raised ... I think the president here really has enhanced maneuverability to do what he wants to do." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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