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How Does Bin Laden’s Death Change U.S. Equation in Af-Pak Region?

May 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Osama bin Laden's death has opened new debate over whether U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan should begin withdrawing before the original July start date. France's foreign minister said his country is considering just that. Jeffrey Brown discusses the war's future with former defense officials Celeste Ward and Seth Jones.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to more of the fallout from the death of Osama bin Laden. It is provoking a debate over whether to speed up troop withdrawals from Afghanistan.

The French foreign minister said today his government is mulling whether to pull out its 4,000 troops sooner than planned. Alain Juppe also claimed the U.S. is considering a similar option in the wake of bin Laden’s demise.

But in Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance will stay the course.

ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN, NATO secretary general: Our strategy will not change. NATO allies and partners will continue the mission to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for extremism, but develops in peace and security.

JEFFREY BROWN: Current plans call for the U.S. to start bringing the first of its 100,000 troops home in July. Nearly all allied forces would be gone by 2014.

And we look at the post-bin Laden situation now with Celeste Ward Gventer, a deputy assistant secretary of defense in 2006 and 2007. She’s now at the University of Texas in Austin. And Seth Jones has held several Pentagon posts. He’s author of “In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan,” and is now at the RAND Corporation.

Celeste Ward Gventer, I will start with you.

There was an anonymous quote from a senior administration official in today’s Washington Post. It said: “Bin Laden’s death is the beginning of the endgame in Afghanistan. It changes everything.”

What do you think? Might it allow us to hasten our troop pullout in Afghanistan?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER, University of Texas at Austin: Thanks, Jeff. Thanks — thanks for having me.

I think that’s exactly right, and not a moment too soon. The rationale for a large-scale U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan had already grown quite thin before the death of bin Laden. But now that he is gone, the spiritual leader and motive force behind the attacks on 9/11 has disappeared from the scene. And only a few hundred, if that, al-Qaida remain in Afghanistan.

And, frankly, it’s time to rethink our commitment, scale down, and start focusing on much larger problems in the American strategic landscape.

JEFFREY BROWN: Seth Jones, does it change everything, or anything?

SETH JONES, RAND Corporation: Yes, I disagree a little bit.

I think the fact that there is still an al-Qaida structure that operates in Pakistan, that continues to have its primary committees intact, from its military operations committees, or individuals like Ilyas Kashmiri, that has pushed into parts of the northeastern areas of Afghanistan, Kunar Province, and that the primary insurgent groups in Afghanistan, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, continue to have a relationship with al-Qaida means that I think now is not the time to take one’s foot off of the accelerator, but, in some cases, it’s actually to press harder, because I think we have got al-Qaida wobbling, as with some of the insurgent groups.

So, I would actually not take the hand off the accelerator.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think would happen if we started this drawdown faster now?

SETH JONES: Well, I think one concern would be that the Taliban has pushed up into the northern parts of Afghanistan, into Kunduz and Baghlan provinces.

If the U.S. drew down, I think, too quickly, you might get increasing successes, taking of territorial control by the Taliban and Haqqani Network, which at some point down the line, as we have already seen in areas that they control, will push in foreign fighters and training camps.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Celeste Gventer…


JEFFREY BROWN: … you’re talking about a — leaving a smaller force that is more aimed at counterterrorism, as opposed to the counterinsurgency strategy?

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: That’s exactly right, Jeff.

I think in — when the administration was debating whether to increase forces in Afghanistan several months ago now, or fall of 2009, the counterterrorist option was disregarded by a lot of analysts and strategists. And unfortunately for them, we have now seen that counterterrorism actually works.

Counterinsurgency had nothing to do with the demise of bin Laden this past weekend. And the fact is that there are extremist groups around the world in other countries as well. And that doesn’t justify a large-scale U.S. military commitment in the pursuit of essentially armed social work.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about that, Seth Jones? Does that change this equation we have had about counterterrorism vs. targeted — going after specific targets vs. the counterinsurgency strategy from Iraq and then into Afghanistan?

SETH JONES: Well, I think, if one looks at the current strategy in Afghanistan right now, A., we’re already seeing a decline in U.S. forces. And that will continue anyway, regardless of what — what was going to happen with Osama bin Laden or any of the senior al-Qaida leadership.

But, B., we have actually seen a change in strategy, where, in particular, U.S. special operations forces anyway have been increasing in Afghanistan as the conventional footprint declines. But instead of just counterterrorism, the bulk of the special operations activity has actually been helping local Afghan communities defend themselves.

So, this is not just a counterterrorism mission. The primary focus of special operations forces is actually also to help locals provide basic neighborhood watch programs. So, it’s a little of both.

JEFFREY BROWN: Celeste Gventer, does that — do you want to come back…


JEFFREY BROWN: Sure. Go ahead

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Jeff, frankly, Afghanistan simply doesn’t justify the expenditure of U.S. resources that are currently committed there.

We are spending about $110 billion to $120 billion a year essentially rebuilding a country that has far less to do with our strategic future than a lot of other places and a lot of other regions.

JEFFREY BROWN: I mean that’s a longer…

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: And we simply can’t justify this — this level of expenditure and this level of commitment. It’s just off-balance with our actual interests in Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s a lot — that’s a longer, bigger discussion. We have had it a number of times here. But the question now is, does bin Laden’s — and I will ask Seth Jones here.

Does bin Laden’s death change the equation and tip it more to the argument she’s making?

SETH JONES: Well, I would just point out two things.

One is that the United States was nearly targeted last year by Faisal Shahzad. He packed an SUV, moved it into Times Square on a Saturday night. The bomb didn’t go off, but he was trained by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan in — on the Afghan/Pakistan border. It wasn’t al-Qaida. It was an al-Qaida allied group.

That organization still exists, as do several others that are plotting attacks. Ilyas Kashmiri has several plots ongoing against the U.S. homeland. I think those issues continue.

And I would say, in addition, the U.S. footprint is coming down and has to come down. So, I think Celeste is right, to some degree, that the current amounts of money we are spending in Afghanistan are — A., they’re too much in this economy, but, B., they’re actually probably not necessary.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Celeste, let me ask you about one more thing…


JEFFREY BROWN: … because the other question, the other debate that’s been going on is whether to move towards more negotiations with the Taliban.

Now, there seems to be some thinking that the death of bin Laden might make that easier, or this might be more of a moment to push for that for both sides, for the Taliban and for the U.S.

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: I think that makes sense.

And to get at your question directly about how bin Laden’s death — death changes the equation in Afghanistan, I think the initiative has changed. And we — we now have the initiative. And, as I mentioned before, all of the tea-drinking and pipe-laying and school-building in the world couldn’t achieve what eliminating bin Laden has now achieved.

And now that we have this moment, I think we precisely can begin negotiations with the Taliban and in putting together a regional compact with neighboring states. After all they care about the future of Afghanistan, too. And it’s not solely an American problem. This is a regional problem.

And we need to engage those regional states far more aggressively than we have in creating a solution for Afghanistan that is truly sustainable. All the U.S. nation-building in the world can’t achieve it alone.

JEFFREY BROWN: Seth Jones, what do you think about the prospects for negotiations with the Taliban now?

SETH JONES: I think it is always helpful to open up discussions with the Taliban for a range of reasons, as we have seen in other insurgencies.

If there is the possibility of a settlement, it opens up that possibility. It’s a way to signal to the other side both good and bad things. But I would say the likelihood of a settlement, I think, is extremely low right now, for several reasons.


SETH JONES: Well, the Taliban believes that it’s winning now, not losing. In addition, the Taliban’s relationship and the Haqqani Network’s relationship with al-Qaida is still — still fairly strong. So the likelihood that it’s going to break its links now, I think, is very unlikely.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we do have to leave it there.

Seth Jones, Celeste Ward Gventer, thank you both very much.

SETH JONES: Thank you.

CELESTE WARD GVENTER: Thank you very much.