As accumulating press reports confirm, intelligence agencies, security officials, and independent experts around the globe agree the death of Osama Bin Laden in no way lowers the curtain on his al Qaeda organization, nor extinguishes the myriad radical groups and individuals sharing its ideology of international jihad. But if there’s no disagreement that the war on terror isn’t over with the demise of its highest-value target, debate is rising over whether OBL’s killing might mark the beginning of the end of the NATO-led military intervention in Afghanistan.
Calls to wrap up the nearly decade-old Afghan operation resonated well before Bin Laden’s May 1 killing—much of that coming from within President Barack Obama’s own Democratic Party. But the dramatic news of OBL’s death has provided new energy to partisans of a quicker Afghan pullout on both sides of the American political divide. The main voices, logic, and arguments behind that position are detailed in excellent pieces in today’s Los Angeles Times and New York Times. That’s now part of a wider school of thought that is responding to the liquidating of Bin Laden—and earlier evidence that popular movements in the Arab world reject al Qaeda, its philosophies, and its leaders as options for change—by calling on Obama to update the entire range of U.S. policies in the Middle East and South Asia. Could such a re-think also include a faster pullout in Afghanistan than previously planned?
The short answer at the moment appears to be no. The general agreement between Obama and NATO allies participating in the Afghan campaign is for an initial scale-down starting this year to move towards a final exit in 2014—with military activity increasingly giving way to more effort towards nation-building, economic construction, and horse-swapping among political powers within Afghanistan (including the Taliban, if its leaders will play ball) in the hopes of establishing a stable post-war governing structure. But according to leading U.S. Democrats, Obama says he’s sticking by that plan despite Bin Laden’s death—a position NATO officials are also echoing. That would seem to settle it.
But let’s wait to see how politics shapes the debate. First off, long-standing accusations of Pakistan double-dealing on the U.S. in their mutual offensive against al Qaeda and the Taliban are now growing louder–Bin Laden’s hiding spot aside a Pakistani military compound (itself located just north of Islamabad) not doing much to mute those claims. Those strategic concerns over Pakistan’s loyalty could reinforce a second political argument being advanced: the claim that with debt-cutting now the governing theology that both Republican legislators and Obama alike have embraced, the billions of dollars being spent on GI boots in Afghanistan might be wiser used (and in far smaller volumes) for exclusively hi-tech and drone attacks on areas suspected of harboring al Qaeda leaders and militants (and too bad if Pakistani leaders don’t like the idea).
Both of those factors, meanwhile, could take on extra weight over time if NATO allies sound off louder than they already have about ending the Afghan operation quickly. Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany (among others) have already voiced eagerness to scale down their contributions to the 144,000-strong NATO deployment. Now, even France—a solid backer and contributor of expanding forces to the Afghan effort since the start—is beginning to show signs of fatigue. Yesterday, legislators on both the right and left saluted the death of Bin Laden as an opportunity to also start re-evaluating the size, strategy, and duration of the Afghan intervention–with some, notably conservative parliamentarians, actually calling for a full pullout of French troops. France’s government says it’s standing firm in Afghanistan for now, but domestic politics could alter that should French public opinion seriously sour on the operation within the year leading up to the 2012 French presidential election.
Of course, if OBL’s liquidation doesn’t change much in terms of al Qaeda’s operation or the determination of its adepts to mount terror strikes around the world, then his death also doesn’t alter the original logic of NATO’s military campaign to deprive the group of its Afghanistan haven and training camps. Yet if the strategic combination of intelligence operatives and elite military commandos in the end proved the best way to decapitate al Qaeda of its furtive figurehead, we may yet see politics influence thinking in Washington and other capitals about whether that more specialized, targeted approach might not also be a more efficient successor for the decade ground operation in Afghanistan. After all, for a death that doesn’t really change much, the killing of Bin Laden seems to be raising a whole host of questions about what may come next.