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U.S. Afghan Mission Under Scrutiny After Bin Laden’s Death

A U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter flies in Afghanistan's Kandahar Province on March 25.
WASHINGTON -- In the hours after U.S. President Barack Obama confirmed that Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had been killed, the talk among both pundits and people on the street had two geographic reference points: The United States, which had just accomplished an historic victory, and Pakistan, where the terrorist leader was hiding in nearly plain sight.

But it hasn’t taken long for the talk to move to Afghanistan and the war launched by the United States primarily to hunt down bin Laden in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001.

On May 3 in Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts) presided over a hearing that discussed what the end game in Afghanistan should look like. It is the first of six hearings on the topic to take place in coming weeks and was scheduled before bin Laden’s death. But Kerry acknowledged that the events of the past two days would change the nature of the discussion.

"With the death of bin Laden, some people are sure to ask, 'Why don't we just pack up and leave Afghanistan?'" said Kerry. "So it's even more compelling that we examine carefully what is at stake, what goals are legitimate and realistic, what is our real security challenge, and how do we achieve the interests of our country."

As U.S. officials have stressed that bin Laden’s death does not mean "mission accomplished" in the fight against terrorism, Kerry said nor does it mean "mission accomplished" with respect to Afghanistan.

That position has support among both political parties represented in Congress.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) said on May 2 that bin Laden’s death “makes our engagement in Pakistan and Afghanistan more important, not less.”

Debate Renewed

But according to evidence at the hearing, the death of bin Laden is reinvigorating the old but lingering existential debate on the Afghan war, prompting the reexamination of what the proper extent and goals of the U.S. mission should be.

It’s the debate that emerged with the start of the war in 2001, came to the fore again when Obama ordered a surge of U.S. troops in late 2009, and has simmered ever since, with the U.S. public growing increasingly skeptical of the mission’s viability and increasingly alarmed by its massive costs.

Senator Richard Durbin (Democrat-Illinois), in attendance at the hearing, said that his frustration with the extended scope of the mission was underlined by the fact that bin Laden’s death will not likely change the timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal.

"I voted for the invasion of Afghanistan and I voted for it to go after Al-Qaeda for what they did to us on 9/11 and to find -- and if necessary, kill -- Osama bin Laden," he said. "Now here we are, almost 10 years later, and I have to tell you, if you would have asked me whether I was signing up for the longest war in American history -- which has no end in sight even after the killing of Osama bin Laden -- I would have to seriously say [that] that wasn't the bargain. That isn't what I thought I was voting for."

The pullout of U.S. troops is slated to begin in July, with a goal of ending the combat mission and fully transferring security responsibilities to Kabul by 2014.

Richard Haass, a special assistant to former President George H.W. Bush and former senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council, was director of policy planning for the State Department when the September 11 attacks occurred. Now he heads the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank.

Testifying at the hearing, he praised Durbin’s choice to vote for a limited counterterrorism operation in Afghanistan.

The United States, Haass said, has incorrectly allowed the mission to morph into a scenario where it has become one of the “protagonists in a civil war” and in which establishing Western markers of national stability had become the goal.

In the context of that goal, he said, bin Laden’s death could only shorten the U.S. mission in Afghanistan if it creates leverage with Islamabad.

"If [bin Laden’s death] leads to some sort of new conversation between Washington and Islamabad [and] to a material change in Pakistani policy, then I think it will have major repercussions. But so long as Pakistan is willing to play the role it has played for all these years and provide sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, not only does it mean that Osama bin Laden's death will not have material impact on the future of Afghanistan, it will not, essentially, have the sort of salutary effects that you and I would like to see more broadly," said Haass.

Afghan Impact

Others see the possibility for a greater effect.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 until February of this year, said bin Laden’s death could lead to positive changes within Afghan politics.

"I think it also may change the willingness of some Taliban to negotiate," she said. "There are arguments that Osama bin Laden was very close to the top leadership of the Taliban -- Mullah Omar. With [bin Laden] gone, that may create some political space. It's at least worth exploring."

She also said that bin Laden’s death, while not ending the Afghan campaign, should be recognized as at least one part of the mission being accomplished. It therefore could provide the United States with a chance to “pivot” and fully focus on remaining goals.

"We should now mark this moment as the beginning of the end -- as a moment that allows us to pivot toward a comprehensive political settlement that will bring security and stability to Afghanistan and greater security to Pakistan, while still allowing the United States to take whatever measures are necessary to protect ourselves against Al-Qaeda," said Slaughter.

While the death of bin Laden may renew doubts among some about the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan, recent polls show that the killing of Washington’s most-wanted man is at least initially boosting public support for the war.

A national poll conducted on May 2 by the opinion research company Survey USA showed that 45 percent of Americans think the war in Afghanistan has been worth fighting. Polls conducted in the months prior to bin Laden’s death showed that as many as two-thirds of Americans felt the war was not worth the loss of life and money.