WASHINGTON – The demise of Osama bin Laden complicates what was already a tough call for President Barack Obama: how to wind down the nearly decade-old war in Afghanistan. Now the symbolic reason for staying in the fight — to get al-Qaida's leader and avenge 9/11 — has been undercut.
Momentum had been building in Congress and elsewhere for a shift to a narrower, less costly military mission in Afghanistan even before the U.S. raid that killed bin Laden.
This could suit Obama's desire to put Afghanistan behind him by beginning a phased troop pullout this summer along with NATO partners. But it also could put him at sharper odds with his military commanders, who argue for a slower drawdown and a longer-term military commitment that they believe would lessen the chances of Afghanistan again falling apart.
U.S. commanders fear squandering hard-fought battlefield gains, particularly those achieved with the addition last year of an extra 30,000 American troops. They now face a spring offensive by the Taliban, whose goal remains undermining the Afghan government, discrediting its security forces and driving out U.S. troops.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., reflected a wider skepticism about remaining heavily involved in Afghanistan when he said Tuesday that he had not imagined at the outset of the war in October 2001 that U.S. troops would still be there — "with no end in sight, even after the death of Osama bin Laden."
Top administration officials have vowed not to abandon Afghanistan, even as the U.S. military role shrinks, and their central rationale is not changed by the elimination of bin Laden. They point to 1989 and the U.S. decision to walk away from Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation collapsed; chaos ensued, the Taliban rose to power and al-Qaida had a launch pad for global terror.
The worry is that the pattern would be repeated if the U.S. left anytime soon, giving terrorists a haven and compelling a future president to intervene yet again.
"Nobody wants them (U.S. troops) to leave and come home more than I do, but I don't want them to go back," Sen. Lindsey Graham, an outspoken supporter of Obama's plan to keep troops there until at least 2014, told reporters. His advice to the president: "Stay with the plan you got."
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who traveled to Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan last month, said it was clear the administration's plan is working. "I don't want to see us take any steps that jeopardize the progress we've made," Boehner told reporters.
Coincidentally, just one day before Obama gave the go-ahead for the nighttime raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan, he announced a new U.S. lineup in Afghanistan, with Lt. Gen. John Allen replacing Gen. David Petraeus as the military commander and Ryan Crocker succeeding Karl Eikenberry as the top U.S. diplomat. But Obama did not say this meant a change of war strategy.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., acknowledged the likelihood that bin Laden's death would increase public pressure to bow out.
"Some people will ask why we don't pack up and leave Afghanistan. We can't do that," said Kerry, who will travel to Afghanistan in the coming weeks. "But it is no longer enough to simply lay out our goals. We need to determine what type of Afghanistan we plan to leave in our wake so that we may actually achieve these objectives."
Bin Laden's death also highlighted rising U.S. frustration with Pakistan, whose fragile government is heavily funded by Washington as a hedge against militants. Pakistan has a history of supporting some militant groups that target outsiders, including U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. is committed to cooperating with Pakistan despite questions about who in the Islamabad government may have known that bin Laden was in hiding in Abbottabad.
"We are working very hard on that relationship. It is an important and complicated relationship that has been tested in many ways over the years," Carney said. "We don't know who if anybody in the government was aware that bin Laden or a high value target was living in the compound. It's logical to assume he had a supporting network. What constituted that network remains to be seen."
CIA director Leon Panetta told Time magazine that the U.S. ruled out informing Pakistan of the coming raid early on, because "it was decided that any effort to work with the Pakistanis could jeopardize the mission. They might alert the targets."
Congress may consider cutting the almost $1.3 billion in annual aid to Pakistan if it turns out the Islamabad government knew where bin Laden was hiding, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said she wants more details from Panetta and others.
Panetta and other senior officials were on Capitol Hill on Tuesday to brief lawmakers on the bin Laden raid and its implications.
Other lawmakers are raising questions about the Afghanistan war in light of a growing U.S. budget deficit, expected to hit $1.6 trillion this year.
"With al-Qaida largely displaced from the country but franchised in other locations, Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, given current fiscal restraints," said Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, at the start of a series of hearings on Afghanistan.
Lugar said Obama needs to spell out what constitutes success in Afghanistan.
Although the number of al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan is believed to be 100 or fewer, they are still a focus of U.S. commanders.
Maj. Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan, said Saturday that his troops killed "our No. 1 targeted insurgent," a Saudi national whom he described as an al-Qaida senior leader who moved frequently between Afghanistan and Pakistan and directed al-Qaida operations in Afghanistan's Kunar province. Campbell said he had been a top target since 2007.
The airstrike that killed that al-Qaida figure is the kind of targeted operation that some believe should be the main feature of the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan — rather than a broader counter-insurgency strategy designed to help the Afghans build government institutions, revitalize their economy and promote reconciliation with the Taliban resistance.