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The Death of Osama bin Laden: Implications for the US Presence in Afghanistan

Tags: Afghanistan , United States , International Affairs , Terrorism

Saunders, Paul J.

May 27, 2011

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America’s success in finding and killing Osama bin Laden appears to be having a substantial impact on US thinking on the war in Afghanistan—but the Obama administration will have to proceed carefully to protect US national interests.

President Barack Obama has already stated that after bin Laden’s death, “we don’t need to have a perpetual footprint of the size that we have now”—suggesting that he may be considering accelerating the US withdrawal scheduled between now and 2014. Vice President Joe Biden is known to favor a smaller-scale presence in Afghanistan focused narrowly on counter-terrorism rather than more ambitious nation-building efforts. An unidentified senior administration official is also quoted as saying that the “pace and slope” of the drawdown may change.

In the Congress, top Senate Democrats, including Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin are clearly seeking a withdrawal, as is Kerry’s Republican counterpart, Senator Richard Lugar. While few other Republican leaders have openly called for a more rapid reduction of the American military deployment in Afghanistan, grassroots Republicans appear increasingly eager to disengage. This reflects a combination of fiscal conservatism and Tea Party-style disinterest in international activism.

Interestingly, some of those skeptical of a significant continuing US presence in Afghanistan have launched a substantial outreach effort directed at conservative Republicans, especially fiscal conservatives. The Afghanistan Study Group—a prominent panel that has recommended troop reductions and a scaled-back strategy—has been a leader in this, illustrated by the group’s recent Washington conference, which included high-profile remarks by arch-conservative commentator Ann Coulter and top strategist and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist. [In full disclosure, Norquist is a board member of the Center for the National Interest, and Center President Dimitri K. Simes also spoke.]

The impact of the Afghanistan debate taking place simultaneously with a major debate on American budget priorities cannot be underestimated. President Obama met separately this week with key Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans to negotiate increases in the debt ceiling, which Republicans have linked to further budget cuts. Meanwhile, as the Afghanistan Study Group has stated, the United States is spending over $100 billion per year on a country whose annual gross national product is only $14 billion.

The American public has also become increasingly determined to withdraw from Afghanistan. A recent Gallup poll shows that 59% of Americans now say the US “has accomplished its mission” there, while only 36% see a need to remain. Outside Washington, both organizations and individuals increasingly see the tide turning in Americans’ views of the conflict; one notable example of this occurred last week in Pittsburgh, when the president of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team issued a statement distancing the team from Twitter posts by a player who asked why so many Americans hated bin Laden without knowing him and expressed skepticism that al Qaeda had in fact destroyed the World Trade Center with airplanes. Referring to bin Laden’ death, the team said that “we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon.”  The Pittsburgh Steelers’ public relations office—which operates in one of America’s pivotal political “battleground states”—probably knows as well or better than anyone how to talk to the people who live in the team’s market. They depend on the people in that market paying to see the team every day, not just every two or four years, like candidates for office.

President Obama appears to have recognized this reality and to have begun to reassess American policy. Hopefully, the task will be simpler the second time; his first policy assessment took months and was delayed repeatedly. By now, the president and his key advisers should be much more familiar with the issues. Much more important, this time the Obama administration will no longer be pinned down politically between the president’s campaign promises to focus on Afghanistan and Republican political pressure, on one hand, and Democratic desires to pull out, on the other. Bin Laden’s killing has changed this calculus by shifting public opinion and providing the administration—and any like-minded Republicans—with a political cover to redefine America’s mission, declare victory, and accelerate US plans to withdraw.

Withdrawing from Afghanistan will still be difficult, however, because it will require a delicate balancing act. Republicans arguing against a fixed withdrawal date, from Iraq and from Afghanistan, have correctly stated that being too eager to leave encourages America’s opponents. Since the conflict in Afghanistan requires a political solution and not strictly a military one, visible changes in the timeline could deter the Taliban from accepting a settlement on terms attractive to Washington. With this in mind, the Obama administration will have to synchronize its strategic decisions very carefully with its diplomatic activity and avoid any appearance of inevitability about a faster American departure. Accomplishing this with the 2012 election just over the horizon will require a degree of skill and finesse that the president and his team have not yet demonstrated.

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