WASHINGTON – Osama bin Laden’s death could force President Barack Obama to change his strategy for ending the nearly decade-long Afghan war, including keeping tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan at least until 2014, according to some Western experts and officials.
The key rationale underpinning Obama’s strategy – repeated in every major statement that the president or his lieutenants make on the war – is that the massive U.S. troop presence is required to stop the Taliban from retaking power in Afghanistan, which could allow al-Qaida to use the country again as a sanctuary from which to attack the United States.
But bin Laden’s death on Sunday in a U.S. commando raid on a compound in northeastern Pakistan dealt a huge blow to al-Qaida that will almost certainly fuel domestic opposition to the war, some officials and experts said. Polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans oppose the war.
“With al-Qaida taken down a big notch, how are we going to sell what we are doing?” asked a veteran U.S. diplomat. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see policy shifts” after Gen. David Petraeus gives up command of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan this summer.
“The American people are going to be pretty quick to write the obituary of al-Qaida because bin Laden is dead,” said Christine Fair, an expert at Georgetown University, who warned that doing so “is premature” because the terrorist network remains a threat.
One key pillar of Obama’s strategy is already facing an uncertain future as a result of bin Laden’s death: the billions of dollars in U.S. aid that Pakistan receives in return for cooperating in fighting terrorism and closing the havens that the Afghan Taliban and allied groups maintain inside its borders.
Key lawmakers indicated on Tuesday that Congress could slash the $3.1 billion the administration is seeking in 2012 for Pakistan if it is determined that the Pakistani army or spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, were complicit in hiding bin Laden outside the city of Abbottabad.
The White House said Tuesday that bin Laden’s killing was consistent with its strategy, under which U.S. troops will begin withdrawing in July and Afghan forces, who are being trained in greater numbers, will gradually assume greater security responsibilities before taking over the entire country by 2014.
“The president’s plan is on track,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “And the focus of that operation, of the … U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, is on al-Qaida.”
Yet senior U.S. intelligence experts estimate that there are fewer than 100 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan at any time. And the unprecedented level of violence convulsing the country is overwhelmingly caused by the Taliban and allied groups like the Haqqani network.
“With al-Qaida largely displaced from the country … Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal restraints,” said Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The pressure to slash federal spending, coupled with the success of the bin Laden raid, could strengthen the hand of Vice President Joe Biden and other senior officials who advocate major cuts in regular U.S. troops and greater reliance on the kind of special forces operations that killed the terrorist leader.
“It was and is an error to equate the Taliban return with al-Qaida’s return,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official, told the Senate Foreign Relations Commission on Tuesday.