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Bin Laden's Death and U.S. Afghan Policy

Interviewee: Stephen D. Biddle, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Defense Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 4, 2011

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Although the conduct of the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to be affected directly by Osama bin Laden's death, it could affect whether or not the Obama administration thinks the stakes there are worth the investment, says CFR defense expert Stephen Biddle. Biddle says that the American public "has been shifting against the war" for some time now, but that despite its unpopularity, the issue hasn't been a political front-burner, so there's been little pressure on politicians to end the war. There are still disagreements within the Obama administration about Afghanistan, says Biddle, and President Obama seems "deeply ambivalent," seeing important U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan but viewing those interests as limited and perhaps not worth "the scale of investment needed to secure them." Biddle's chief concern is that if Afghanistan falls to the Taliban, it could lead to major disorder in Pakistan, and the possible spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists.

How are we doing in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda launched the plans for 9/11, and will Osama bin Laden's death have an impact there?

I don't think the conduct of the war in a military sense will be affected by this in any meaningful way. You could imagine that Taliban morale might be affected in ways that would be helpful for us, but that effect will be small. The Taliban have much more immediate concerns, mostly in the form of the effects of the U.S. reinforcement, the loss of their logistical infrastructure, and so on. The consequence of bin Laden's death for Afghanistan is much more tied to the issue of whether or not the United States thinks the stakes in Afghanistan are still worth the investment there and accelerates various drawdown proposals.

Until Sunday night, an observer of the U.S. political scene would have to come to the conclusion that the American public was losing interest in Afghanistan. People thought this was a war that was going on too long. Do you agree?

It's important to separate preference and salience. The preference of the American public has been shifting against the war for some time now and is continuing to do so. The salience [prominence] of this issue in American politics, however, has been extremely low for quite some time. Although there is widespread disaffection with the war, it's a very soft view and it is not deeply held. The war was essentially invisible in the midterm elections: You would have needed an electron microscope to detect the effect on Afghanistan on the election results.

Not just Afghanistan, but foreign affairs in general.

That's true, but its consequence for Afghanistan is that since the issue lacks salience, the pressure on elected officials to act is lower than you might think if you just looked at the poll results. Moreover, taking action at this point basically requires taking responsibility for ending the war, or accelerating the departure from the war, and could have real consequences which might change the salience of the war in ways that are damaging to the political fortunes of people who advocate withdrawal.

If you do nothing about Afghanistan, the public probably isn't going to punish you for it, because they are fixated on the economy and other issues. If you take responsibility for the consequences of withdrawal by imposing it through a vote in the Congress--for example, to deny funds--you now become associated with what happens. If everything goes fine, you don't get much credit for your vote because people aren't paying that much attention. If things go badly, you get a lot of blame for that vote, because then people will pay attention.

Now, bin Laden's death raises the possibility that this might change the salience of the war. Obviously, there is tremendous public interest in this issue right now and intense news coverage. If, as a consequence of renewed attention to South Asia that results from bin Laden's death, the salience of Afghanistan on American politics rises, then all bets are off.

In December 2009, President Obama laid out Afghan policy, saying that by the end of June 2011, there would be the beginnings of a withdrawal. In recent months, talk about the withdrawal has been reduced to a whisper. What's your best guess on that?

The conventional wisdom around town has been for a while that the withdrawal will be very modest. It won't be completely trivial. The president's pledge will be met, but we are not going to do what Vice President [Biden] recommended privately and get out as fast as we got in. There have been some indications in the last couple of months that there is a group of folks in the administration who still believe that we should get out as fast as we got in and that they're going to put that case forward and try to impose that outcome. My guess is that there will be another debate over this. Neither of the camps--pro- or anti-war, pro-counterinsurgency or pro-counterterrorism--has ever really persuaded the other side, and I think that's still true. That means whenever you get to one of these decision opportunities, people use it as an occasion to try to re-litigate the debate.

If you have a situation in Afghanistan where you think it's a close call on the merits--and the president appears to be in that camp--then when one side of the ledger changes in value, you can imagine the policy choice changing.

General David H. Petraeus, the commander of the allied forces in Afghanistan, will be leaving to take over the CIA, and CIA Director Leon Panetta is going to become the new Defense Secretary. Does that indicate any change?

I would not read this as some signal of intent, some kind of harbinger of a big policy change on the part of the administration. That said, these changes are having the effect of taking three of the four most influential advocates of a forceful policy in Afghanistan and removing them from the decision-making.

Who is the third, besides Petraeus and Panetta?

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. That leaves Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the primary advocate of the forceful policy in this theater. Now, we don't know what Panetta's views are going to be yet. He tends to be a champion of the agency he is heading, at least to a reasonable degree. Many people change perspective when they change jobs. It's hard to imagine replacing those three with people who are as politically and bureaucratically effective and as committed to this policy. I don't think it was a deliberate decision by the White House to remove advocates of this policy. These folks are just reaching their kind of natural "sell by" date on their government service. But as a simple empirical observation, these changes are likely to lead to a weaker advocacy of the Afghan war.

Talk about the person replacing General Petraeus in Afghanistan.

Marine General John Allen is best known for his role in the Anbar Awakening in Iraq in 2006 and 2007 [when Sunni militants joined the U.S. forces in Iraq and ended their insurrection]. When this tribal realignment that people refer to as Anbar Awakening was just starting, it was very controversial within the command. These people had American blood on their hands; we didn't know if we could trust them. They were long-time allies of al-Qaeda, and it was hotly debated what to do. The authorities in Anbar province, especially Colonel Sean McFarland and General Allen, went out on a limb by advocating that we cooperate with these folks. Looking back on it now, people say, "What a brilliant idea." It was anything but at the time, and Allen deserves a lot of credit for the insight and the moral courage required to back that policy.

All that being said, he has no meaningful experience in the Afghan theater. So we are taking a guy with an essentially Iraq background and putting him in charge of a complicated, densely intricate web of interconnected ideas and policies in Afghanistan.

Obama has gone through many Afghanistan policy reviews, and we know from Bob Woodward's book, Obama's Wars--assuming it's accurate--that he seemed reluctant to increase troop levels, but finally went along with a compromise increase. Will the killing of bin Laden make him more hawkish on Afghanistan?

The account of the president's thinking that one encounters in places like the Woodward book depicts a man deeply ambivalent about the war, who sees important U.S. interests at stake there, but who also sees those interests as limited and is worried that the scale of the investment needed to secure them could be more than it's worth. Thus, he is trying to find some limited strategy for securing limited interests. The problem is that it's not clear that that such a limited policy option exists. Much of the frustration between Obama and the military in the Afghanistan review has been that Obama has been asking the military to present him with the nonexistent option of a cheap way to secure limited goals in the midst of a war where the interests of the locals are not limited.

There are lots of things about Pakistan that we have very little, if any, influence over. But one that we do have some influence on is Afghanistan collapsing into chaos and becoming a source of terrorist bases and havens to aggravate an already serious problem of insurgency and instability inside Pakistan.

The administration understandably wants it and thinks that the military is holding out. That kind of ambivalence suggests, among other things, a president who is actively weighing costs and benefits rather than simply being wholeheartedly and absolutely committed whatever the costs. If you have a situation in Afghanistan where you think it's a close call on the merits, and the president appears to be in that camp, then when one side of the ledger changes in value, you can imagine the policy choice changing. At the moment it's way too early to know what effect removing bin Laden is going to have on the scale of the terror threat emanating from Pakistan. Maybe it will be large, maybe it will be zero. But if we start seeing intelligence indications over the next six months or year that this has had a bigger effect on al-Qaeda than lots of people are now expecting, you could imagine that would undermine the case for the war in Afghanistan both with the general public and affect the president's own [views].

What is the connection between al-Qaeda and the Taliban?

There are some direct connections in the sense that al-Qaeda provides assistance and training and advising to various Taliban factions. The main connection, though, is much more indirect. The primary reason to worry about al-Qaeda is if a Pakistani state collapse causes a loss of control of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. That is one of the very few scenarios you can think of in which it's plausible that al-Qaeda could get its hands on a usable nuclear weapon. Anything that would cause a Pakistani state collapse ought to be a great concern to us.

There are lots of things about Pakistan that we have very little if any influence over. But one that we do have some influence on is Afghanistan collapsing into chaos and becoming a source of terrorist bases and havens to aggravate an already serious problem of insurgency and instability inside Pakistan. The Taliban is a primary contributor to the risk of a state collapse in Afghanistan, which would contribute to the destabilizing of Pakistan, which we care about more. Note how indirect that causal chain is. One reason I suspect the president finds Afghanistan such a frustrating issue is that the interconnections between Afghanistan and Pakistan are real and consequential, but they're indirect. That again brings you back into this whole problem of having real but limited interests in Afghanistan, which require big expenditures of lives and dollars to address.

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