Osama Bin Laden's dead; should we get out of Afghanistan?

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May 12 2011 6:44 PM

Let's Get to the Real Debate

Bin Laden's dead. Should we get out of Afghanistan?

Soldiers in Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
A U.S. soldier in Afghanistan

Does the death of Osama Bin Laden mean the United States should speed up the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan?

Congressional leaders of both parties are saying it does, as are, reportedly, some advisers in certain quarters of the White House.

There are certainly legitimate arguments for winding down the war or altering the strategy. But they have little to do with the fact that the leader of al-Qaida is sleeping with the fishes.

First, as critics of the war have pointed out in different contexts, many Taliban factions have no connection with al-Qaida. If Bin Laden wasn't running or even much inspiring the insurgents in his lifetime, his abrupt demise isn't likely to grind the fighting to a halt. (Then again, if his diaries and thumb drives prove that he really was in charge of the Afghan Taliban, this calculation changes enormously.)

Second, those Taliban leaders who did have personal ties with Bin Laden—for example, Mullah Omar—may now have less reason to fight on. The possibility is at the very least worth probing. But it's not at all clear that rubbing out the godfather makes his capos more amenable to reconciling with the Western-backed Afghan government. Some of Mullah Omar's deputies or ground commanders might now find the notion more alluring. But officials say they've seen no spurt of defections in the 10 days since the raid on Abbottabad.

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Third, the war in Afghanistan has never been entirely about killing or capturing Bin Laden. It's a big deal that he's been killed. Al-Qaida has lost not merely a figurehead but its political and spiritual leader, the seemingly invincible embodiment of its whole mythic narrative. But the organization and its dream aren't dead; its franchise managers, however splintered and paranoid, can still wreak much damage. More to the point, Afghanistan, in its current state, would very likely tumble into anarchy or civil war without the binding presence (however tenuous) of U.S. and NATO troops—and thus serve, again, as a sanctuary for terrorists. Of particular concern here are the most-militant jihadists, who could turn the lawless terrain into a cross-border expanse from which to plan and execute their ambitions in nuclear-armed Pakistan.

This has been the real aim of the war, to the extent an aim has been articulated—to keep Afghanistan stable, at least to the point where the country can't be taken over by forces intent on attacking others or fomenting upheaval in Pakistan. It's maddening that Pakistan has done so little to quell this threat to its own survival. Or, to put it more precisely, it's maddening that Pakistan's military and intelligence services are split into factions, some of whose interests are aligned with the jihadists—and that Pakistan's civilian government is too weak to root out those elements. But this is the trap in which we find ourselves.

The killing of Bin Laden would have momentous impact on the Afghan war—and on world politics—if some Pakistani leaders used the occasion to force systemic institutional reforms. Many countries' leaders would be compelled to make vast changes if it were suddenly revealed that they'd been harboring the world's most wanted mass murderer for five years—and that a foreign power can mount a military raid deep inside its borders without triggering the slightest detection, much less resistance. In just about any other country on earth, a leader would use this double embarrassment as an opportunity to clean house, chop heads, overhaul rival power networks.

But this is Pakistan, where the institutions suspected of harboring the mass murderer—and responsible for protecting borders—are in charge and in deep cahoots with the militant jihadists whose very existence jeopardizes the fate of the country. (For an enlightening history of this self-destructive symbiosis, see Pakistan: Between Mosque and Military, by Husain Haqqani. Interestingly, Haqqani wrote the book in 1995, when he was in exile at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. Now he is Pakistan's ambassador to the United States and so spends much of his time trying, in effect, to convince our officials that his book's thesis isn't true.)

And so, the real potential "game-changer" of Bin Laden's killing—that it might force the Pakistanis to break away from their darkest historical remnants and pursue a more civilized path—isn't likely to happen.

This is the case not just because the military and the Islamists share the same power base, but also because the Taliban are a useful tool in Pakistan's rivalry with India. Pakistanis view India as a much greater threat to their national survival than the Taliban or even al-Qaida. They continue to support certain elements of the Taliban—they want these elements to thrive in Afghanistan—in order to maintain a policy of "strategic depth" against what they see as their larger enemy. Should India invade (and there have been a few wars between the two countries since the 1947 partition), a friendly Afghanistan would be a strategic reserve. In the meantime, a strong Taliban helps counter India's efforts to create a presence in Afghanistan—in other words, helps to pre-empt India's encirclement of Pakistan.

The death of Osama Bin Laden doesn't alter these factors.

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