It is not yet clear how the death of Osama bin Laden will impact President Obama’s promised draw down of American troops from Afghanistan set to begin in July. The Wall Street Journal reports that staff officers with Central Command in Kabul have written a report with the recommendation that only 5,000 troops be rotated home in July with another 5,000 withdrawn by year’s end.
But this report was written before bin Laden’s death. And the war’s opponents in the administration and on Capitol Hill are calling for a faster timetable in withdrawing American troops, making the argument that bin Laden’s demise has weakened al-Qaeda to the point that the president can bring our commitment in Afghanistan to an end on schedule in 2014.
Meanwhile, even as some in Congress are calling for a redefinition of the War on Terror, the facts on the ground in Afghanistan may prevent President Obama from satisfying war critics because of the slow pace of progress in training shown by the Afghan army and police and the inability of the Afghan government to entice the Taliban to negotiate.
When the president announced the 30,000 increase in troops for Afghanistan in December of 2009, it was with the understanding that the number of soldiers to be withdrawn beginning with the July, 2011 target date would depend on both the military success on the ground as well as the progress made by Afghan police and army units in their training. To date, the military is pleased with their counterterrorism strategy that has seen substantial progress in the south, especially in Kandahar province where the Taliban is strongest.
But the success in training the Afghan army and police has been uneven at best. For example, in February, we withdrew units from the Pech Valley in northeastern Afghanistan, turning over security to Afghan forces. Within weeks, the Taliban was back, setting up bases and taking over towns and villages that once had been cleared of them. In some villages, the newly trained police and army simply melted away. While there have been local successes with the new Afghan units, the military believes the training will go on for a decade or more before the Afghans will be able to take complete responsibility for their own security.
But there are some in the administration who believe that bin Laden’s death will change the psychology of the war and lead to a more measured draw down of troops. Outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates calls bin Laden’s death a “gamechanger” and believes that besides delivering a blow to al-Qaeda, the terrorist’s death may make it easier for the Taliban to agree to a negotiated a settlement with President Harmid Karzai’s government. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also sounded optimistic about the salutary effect in Afghanistan as a result of the al-Qaeda leader’s death. “We must take this opportunity to renew our resolve and redouble our efforts,” she said.
Others, like Senator Lindsey Graham, believe now is not the time to pull back, but rather, to increase our efforts. Graham believes the killing of bin Laden has given the US effort in Afghanistan “momentum” and that what “we ought to do is pour it on now.”
But voices in Congress calling for a quick pullout from Afghanistan see bin Laden’s death in a different light. A leading Republican war critic in the House, Representative Jason Chaffetz, wrote that “it was not the 100,000 troops that took out bin Laden.” He believes we can still be effective fighting terrorism even if we bring most of the troops home.
Indeed, there is a strategy being crafted that anticipates the American withdrawal that would rely heavily on special forces to fight with the Afghan army as well as participate in the efforts to rebuild the civilian infrastructure. The Associated Press reports that the strategy is a “hybrid” between conventional counterterrorism strategies and a more Afghan-friendly policy that sees the role of special forces as trainers and facilitators rather than pure warriors. It has apparently led to some local successes that have encouraged General David Petreaus to expand the program.
One area where policy makers are hoping bin Laden’s death will alter our fortunes is the ongoing – and so far futile – effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. General Petreaus believes that getting the Afghan government and the Taliban to reach a negotiated settlement is the quickest way out for American troops. But there has yet to be a group of Taliban leaders willing to sit down with President Karzai and negotiate an end to the war.
In the end, the decision on how many men to bring home and when is a political decision. The Pentagon believes that the bulk of troops sent during the surge should stay through the summer, which is the fighting season in Afghanistan. Complicating that notion is the fact that there are many in the administration who want to bring the bulk of our soldiers home before the 2012 election, which would almost certainly mean a much faster withdrawal than the Pentagon would like.
They may want to rethink that political equation after the death of bin Laden. An ABC poll last December found that by a 60-34% margin, the American people thought the war in Afghanistan had not been worth it. But a recent poll taken by the Washington Post and Pew Research after Osama bin Laden’s death shows that 64% of Americans expect success in Afghanistan, up from 49% in December.
This may give the president some political breathing room in the coming debate. If he is so inclined, he can use this boost in support to pretty much stay the course for another 6 months with a minimal number of troops rotated out. With the Taliban beginning it’s “spring offensive,” that may be the wisest course.
But the president must deal with a liberal base that has been agitating for a quick and total withdrawal from Afghanistan. Obama has indicated he wants “significant” withdrawals beginning in July and the liberals would no doubt see a 10% reduction for the rest of the year as a betrayal.
Even if the president low-balls the number of troops we will withdraw this year, it won’t stop a movement in Congress to redefine the War on Terror by altering the original “Authorization for the Use Military Force” or AUMF. Many on the Hill believe that the death of Osama bin Laden has closed a chapter in the war that began with 9⁄11, and that since AUMF was passed in 2001, the nature and scope of the enemy has changed dramatically. In addition to fighting the remnants of al-Qaeda, other terrorist groups have emerged as a threat to our national security and the AUMF should be amended to reflect that fact.
“It’s been a decade….Bin Laden is gone. We need to update the law,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX). He and other Republicans are trying to amend AUMF to include specific authorization for the president to take prisoners. It also drops any reference to 9⁄11 and includes the Taliban and “associated forces” as entities with which the US is at war.
There is some agreement that it may be necessary to amend AUMF. A “senior administration official” told Politico that there was some sympathy at the White House for changing the language of the resolution. “As an intellectual policy matter you can make a very good argument for doing that [but] there are divisions,” within the administration, he said.
Some liberals are arguing that the Republicans want to declare war. Others believe that by widening the scope of AUMF, it would transfer war making power to the White House from Congress.
However the effort to amend AUMF turns out, the death of Osama bin Laden will continue to affect our policy in Afghanistan and the way in which we fight al-Qaeda and its imitators for years to come.