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WASHINGTON — Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, can the troops come home?

With the leader of al-Qaida gone and the terrorist organization scrambling to recover, that’s the question facing military leaders and the White House. After nearly 10 years of fighting, more than 100,000 U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan, and plans call for a sizeable force to remain there until 2014.

But lawmakers and security experts say the death of bin Laden, the man whose terrorist attacks launched the war in the first place, may serve as a chance to reassess those plans, and find ways to end U.S. involvement in the seemingly endless war.

Defense Department officials are set to begin drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July, although the size and scope of that drawdown have not been announced.

Lawmakers on both sides of the war debate immediately seized on bin Laden’s death to support their views. Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Monday that the death of the al-Qaida leader is an opportunity for even larger troop withdrawals in July than he originally supported. Republicans in the chamber labeled it evidence that U.S. forces have seized momentum, and need to continue the fight.

Members of President Barack Obama’s own party – and even some advisers within his administration – have pushed for a dramatic drawdown plan, but Republicans have blasted those efforts as a “cut and run” strategy. Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, said bin Laden’s death may give the president more leverage to silence those critics.

“An immediate consequence is Obama now has more political capital, and it’s going to be harder for Republicans to criticize” the president’s decisions on Afghanistan, he said. “Bin Laden was a huge embarrassment, and his death makes it much easier for the U.S. to negotiate over withdrawal.”

Across town, White House officials worked to stifle the notion that the goal in Afghanistan was simply to defeat one man or one group.

“The basis for the [International Security Assistance Force] presence in Afghanistan is to bring that country the security that it can have, and to not allow al-Qaeda to ever again use Afghanistan as a launching point,” said John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.

The Defense Department’s periodic assessment of the Afghanistan War, released last month, claimed large security gains throughout the country but also cautioned that “difficult work lies ahead,” especially in training local security forces.

But most of the report focuses on the Taliban insurgency, and the deposed government’s lingering influence in the country. Last summer, CIA director Leon Panetta — now set to become the next defense secretary — acknowledged in interviews that fewer than 100 al-Qaida fighters may actually be on the battlefield in Afghanistan, indicating that bin Laden’s followers play a small role in the current fight.

Nearly 1,500 U.S. servicemembers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, 120 of those this year. Military officials are set to spend about $120 billion on Afghanistan in 2011, and battlefield planners are already predicting heavier fighting — and more casualties — in coming months, even with a smaller al-Qaida threat.

On Tuesday, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., launched a new round of hearings to “debate the end-state in Afghanistan” in light of bin Laden’s death, noting that “we have to ask at every turn if our strategy is sustainable.”

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said that it’s not. Even if it were, the cost in dollars and casualties doesn’t make the effort worth it.

“Successful building of a stable Afghanistan by 2014 is at best a long shot,” he told lawmakers. “Afghanistan no longer represents a global terrorism threat, and certainly not more than other countries like Pakistan. It’s a strategic distraction. The situation in Afghanistan does not warrant us becoming a protagonist in their civil war.”

He believes the U.S. should dramatically scale back its footprint to fewer than 20,000 troops, to focus solely on training and special operations missions.

But Anne-Marie Slaughter, an international affairs professor at Princeton University, warned any kind of knee-jerk reaction to bin Laden’s death could rush troops out of Afghanistan too quickly, jeopardizing security gains.

Bin Laden’s death should mark “the beginning of the end,” but officials must still push ahead with military plans to create a secure and stable environment for the fledgling Afghan government, she said.

“We have an overwhelming interest in making sure that Afghanistan cannot again become home to al-Qaida, and our fighting to date has helped achieve that,” she said.

Even before bin Laden was killed, the American public’s patience with the fight in Afghanistan seemed to be wearing thin. Last week, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 49 percent of respondents approved of Obama’s handling of the war, continuing a steady drop in support for the effort since he took office.

But bin Laden’s death also prompted a patriotic fever similar to the days following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which could give the president the public support he needs to continue with his plans to slowly wrap up combat operations over the next three years. In a poll conducted Monday evening by the Pew Research Center, 60 percent of respondents approved of Obama’s handling of Afghanistan and 69 percent approved of his handling of the threat of terrorism, the highest marks he has received in his presidency.

Reporter Chris Carroll contributed to this story.

shanel@stripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @LeoShane

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