Killing of Bin Laden May Provide Opening For Compromise In Afghan War (5/2)     Print Email

Will the elimination of Osama Bin Laden help open the way to an end of the war in Afghanistan and an earlier withdrawal of more U.S. and European troops fighting there in the NATO-led offensive against the Taliban? This question is already being debated in policy circles in Washington (and in European capitals) on the day after the killing of Al Qaeda’s leader.

Any such larger geo-strategic effects of the striking U.S. intelligence success will take months to emerge. But already analysts are weighing possible improvements in the prospect for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan – an outcome that could head off mounting political frictions in Western countries after an Afghan war that shows signs of becoming a bone of contention in transatlantic relations. In Europe, many key allies with forces in Afghanistan face mounting domestic political pressures to follow the lead of the Netherlands and end their military role in the conflict. In the U.S., the Obama administration is under voters’ pressure, too, to cut defense spending as part of an overall fiscal retrenchment.

Arguably the most important factor of change in the aftermath of Osama Bin Laden’s elimination is the strengthened prestige and credibility of President Barack Obama as a national security leader. He gets credit in most Americans’ eyes for following through with tough-minded anti-terrorist policies and then pulling the trigger with his “kill” order to the mission headed for Pakistan.

Already, the elimination of Al Qaeda's head is being hailed as Obama's greatest presidential act. According to prominent liberal blogger Andrew Sullivan, the President who finally found and killed Osama bin Laden "will be very difficult not to re-elect."

Such praise for Obama’s performance should afford some protection against opposition attacks that his administration is somehow “soft” on Muslim terrorists and give him some room for maneuvering to proceed with what is widely believed to be his administration’s desire to wind down the U.S. and NATO military operation in Afghanistan. It would be welcome in Washington as a step back from “nation-building.”  A deal with the Taliban could open the way to a much more limited role for U.S. troops in maintaining minimal stability in Afghanistan.

Indeed, the Osama Bin Laden killing may cut a Gordian knot in the U.S.-led war on terror and permit governments on both sides of the Atlantic to shift some resources away from the Afghan war to espionage and other forms of counter-terrorism. In this sense, his demise may prove a “game-changer” in a larger context covering both the Afghan conflict and Western thinking about counter-terrorism strategy in failed states such as Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia.

Bin Laden’s elimination ends the manhunt that was a nominal motivation for the western offensive in Afghanistan. As widely suspected, Bin Laden had long ago decamped to neighboring Pakistan, but there were fears that he might revive his terrorist headquarters in Afghanistan under the protection of a regionally victorious Taliban.

For Western strategists, his death now eliminates a strong psychological factor in the often-unclear linkage between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. True, both groups dislike the central government in Kabul, and both Afghan and U.S. leaders have made it a precondition of any peace talks with the Taliban that they renounce any ties with Al Qaeda. That step may be much easier now that Bin Laden is dead: part of some Taliban leaders’ allegiance to Bin Laden was their debt to him as a fund-raiser and ally for the Taliban cause.  No successor of Bin Laden can claim that role or deliver that degree of terrorist support for the Taliban.

As far as Western interests are concerned, the Taliban are much less a threat and a cause for security concern if they are just a fundamentalist movement and not a force committed to controlling Afghan territory as a potential safe haven for Al Qaeda.

Indeed, the fate of Bin Laden (and several other Al Qaeda leaders) shows the effect of intelligence tracking and of the use of force from “off-shore” bases such as drones or, in this case, special forces units that can be dispatched from a neutral airfield or an aircraft carrier or even from an improvised staging  base.

According to American strategists, U.S. success in decapitating the iconic Islamic terrorist movement – may be an opportunity for the West to be more open to seeking an accommodation with the Taliban. A negotiated settlement in Afghanistan would fit strategic thinking that seems to be gaining ground in Washington – in favor of investing less in “militarization” of U.S. hard power and, instead, putting more emphasis on intelligence, espionage and special forces in the way that succeeded with Bin Laden. An approach of this sort could be used against terrorist cells almost anywhere, and they would free up the over-stretched armed forces of the U.S. and key European allies.

Coincidentally, such a switch may be foreshadowed in the shift last week in the U.S. national security leadership.  It will put the Pentagon under the leadership of Leon Panetta, who headed the CIA during the spy agency’s final phase and success in hunting down Osama Bin Laden while the new head of the agency will be General David Petraeus, who in commanding the Afghan-Pakistan theater has emphasized counter-insurgency tactics combining regular troops, special forces and intelligence agents.

A policy shift in this direction would be welcome in Europe, where center-left opposition parties are becoming  increasingly vocal in their calls for disengagement from Afghanistan. And conservative European leaders – in France, Italy and elsewhere are warning that more resources need to be devoted to fighting terrorists and dealing with other political challenges in turbulent North Africa.

The first day after the announcement of this U.S. success, Western leaders are publicly emphasizing the justice of seeing him tracked down and killed by U.S. special forces – an outcome that puts an end to a feature of his personal myth that he would commit suicide rather than be captured or killed by his Western enemies. Welcoming his death, Western leaders – without exception in Europe – have stressed the theme that Muslim-based terrorism will not end with the demise of this iconic but perhaps isolated master-mind of attacks in the U.S. and in Europe.  Many European nations, notably Britain and Spain, suffered Al Qaeda strikes on their subway and train systems, and Germany and France and others have discovered Al Qaeda cells and plots on their territory. In the U.S., there is a note of triumphalism that is understandable emotionally. (It seems noteworthy that American celebrating the news chanted patriotic slogans such as “U.S.A.” and generally did not manifest anti-Muslim hatred or themes of revenge.)

--By European Affairs