From a clear-headed, analytical point of view, the death of Usama Bin Ladin should make little difference, one way or another, regarding U.S. policy toward the war in Afghanistan. Even if his demise were to make a major difference in the fortunes of al-Qaeda, there is barely any al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. That latter fact, which is one of the reasons Bin Ladin's death ought to be irrelevant to policy on the war in Afghanistan, is also one of the reasons continuation of this war—rationalized largely in terms of fears of what al-Qaeda has done in the past and of what it might do again in the future—is not a cost-effective use of U.S. resources.
Move away from clear-headed policy analysis and to the real political world in which policy is made, and this week's event at Abbottabad may make a good deal of difference. Any happening with the enormous popular resonance of this one presents political opportunities. Advocates on both sides of debate about the war in Afghanistan will try to spin the event in their direction. Those favoring a staying of the current course in Afghanistan, such as Senator Joe Lieberman, are already preemptively warning that it would be a mistake to interpret Bin Ladin's departure as a reason to scale down the military effort in Afghanistan. But the bigger political opportunity is on the side of those who believe that such a scaling down is wise. The opportunity lies in the following factors that are related to Bin Ladin's death and that mostly involve popular belief, or misbelief.
1. The most important factor is the widespread public belief—long nourished by rationalization of the war in terms of preventing terrorist safe havens—that the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has been preventing inroads by terrorists. Given the way the American public has tended to personalize the problem and to equate inroads by terrorists with inroads by Bin Ladin, there is a more fertile field today than there was two days ago for exactly the kind of argument that Lieberman was trying to head off. Making that argument admittedly involves a callous exploitation of public misunderstanding. But exploitation at least that callous has been used to get the United States involved in misadventures, with the Bush administration's selling of the Iraq War being the most obvious recent example. A little callous exploitation in service of an objective that is far more in U.S. interests would not be bad.
2. The taking out of Bin Ladin discredits a pro-counterinsurgency argument that was much heard during the Obama administration's lengthy policy review on Afghanistan, when the principal alternative—reportedly advocated especially by Vice President Biden—was a smaller scale presence aimed more narrowly at counterterrorist objectives. The argument was that this alternative would not work because the United States needs boots on the ground to collect the intelligence required for effective counterterrorism. Now the United States has conducted a pretty darn successful counteterrorist operation, one requiring precise intelligence, in Pakistan without having any boots on the ground waging a counterinsurgency there. It is time to remind people that there is a less costly alternative to the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan.
3. The circumstances at Abbottabad also tend to discredit in the eyes of the public the argument that, even if there isn't a significant al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, the war there is needed to protect a Pakistani ally from radical influences spreading across the Durand Line. Stability in Pakistan is indeed a U.S. interest, and it would be a mistake to let our understandable displeasure over the idea that Pakistani officialdom should have known Bin Ladin's whereabouts lead us to turn our backs on Pakistan in disgust. But waging a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is not the way to promote stability in Pakistan. To the extent that disgust with Pakistan erodes popular support for prolonging the counterinsurgency at something like its current level, that is desirable even if the erosion is based on a public misunderstanding.
4. Another factor is based not on misunderstanding but instead on an actual effect of Bin Ladin being taken out of the picture, That effect is a greater willingness of the Afghan Taliban to make deals that would require it to cut all remaining ties with Al Qaeda. It should be more willing to do so than before this week because any loyalty the Taliban felt to Bin Ladin was more to him personally—for the support he gave to the Taliban in the Afghan civil war of the 1990s—then to the group he led. This in turn should improve the prospects for negotiated settlement of conflicts in Afghanistan even without more softening up of the Taliban through allied military operations.
All of these considerations should improve the political climate for President Obama, should he choose to do so, to begin after July 2011 a military withdrawal from Afghanistan that is of more than token proportions. The question is whether he would choose to do so. There are some reasons for optimism that he would. For Barack Obama, the war in Afghanistan has always been less a matter of conviction than baggage taken on to demonstrate his national security cojones despite his opposition to the Iraq War. If he does choose to start shedding some of that baggage, one more consequence of the taking out of Bin Ladin would work in his favor:
5. The political lift that the successful operation in Pakistan gives to the president would enable him to start backing away from the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan while being less vulnerable than he otherwise would be to charges of being a wimp on national security matters.