May 12, 2011

Will Bin Laden's Death Affect Afghan Insurgency?

It didn't take long for some on Capitol Hill to point to the successful operation to kill al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden as evidence that the U.S. could be winning the war in Afghanistan with fewer troops on the ground.

"With the death of Osama bin Laden, I think it's important that our country go back and re-examine what we're doing and not doing in Afghanistan," Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) said in a video message on his website. "The reality is global terrorism is real and it's out there and we're going to deal with it. That doesn't necessitate that we need 100,000 people in Afghanistan."

The Obama administration plans to pull some troops out in July, but administration officials say the overall strategy will remain as is — in part because it's still unclear what effect bin Laden's death is going to have on the insurgency.

The Possibilities

One possibility: nothing changes, at least not in the short term.

"Right now there's no evidence available to us to suggest that removing bin Laden is going to have that kind of decisive effect on al-Qaida," said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Biddle says there's a formula for trying to take out a terrorist group from the top.

"The usual course is you remove the leader, the leader gets replaced," he said. "The new guy isn't as good as the last guy, so the group gets somewhat weaker as a result, but it doesn't just collapse."

If al-Qaida stays strong, he says, the U.S. military mission remains the same: build Afghanistan up so it can keep al-Qaida out. But there's another school of thought about bin Laden's death, one shared by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

"I think that there's a possibility that it could be a game changer," Gates said last week.

The question is how.

Maj. Gen. John Campbell, the head of U.S. military operations in eastern Afghanistan, told reporters this week that insurgents might be demoralized.

"I have this gut feeling that this was the No. 1 guy for al-Qaida," he said. "A lot of people, to include the Taliban, have a symbiotic relationship with al-Qaida, and they're going to think twice now, 'Why are we doing this?' "

Here's another scenario, this time focusing on the Taliban's relationship with al-Qaida. John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, says those ties may start to fray with bin Laden gone.

"A lot of the relationships between al-Qaida and the Taliban was the result of those personal links that bin Laden formed way back in the 1980s," Nagl said. "With him gone, they don't have the same kind of relationships with [Ayman al-] Zawahiri, his No. 2. So it's going to be harder to keep that unholy alliance going."

Nagl says a break between al-Qaida and the Taliban could create space for peace talks, which could lead to a negotiated settlement.

Effect On Pakistan

Finally, bin Laden's death could change the war in Afghanistan in one other way, which involves Pakistan.

"If it brings about a change in Pakistani policies, then it would be a game changer, said Zalmay Khalilzad, the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Khalilzad says Pakistan has been playing a double game for years — working on the surface with the United States and at the same time supporting the Taliban and elements of al-Qaida. Khalilzad says he thinks bin Laden's death could change Pakistan's calculation.

"If it changes the dynamic and the relationship with Pakistan with regard to support for extremists who are fighting us in Afghanistan, that would be the more important consequence of what has happened to bin laden," he said.

U.S. officials have been trying to find a way to get Pakistan to choose sides for years; finding bin Laden on Pakistani soil may give them the leverage they have been looking for.

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