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Debating Next Steps in Afghanistan

Author: Deborah Jerome, Deputy Editor
May 12, 2011

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Close on the heels of Osama bin Laden's death May 1 at the hands of U.S. Special Forces in Pakistan came questions about what his elimination meant for the almost decade-long war in Afghanistan. These have led to an increasingly heated debate in policy circles (NYT) about the anticipated drawdown of U.S. troops beginning in July as well as funding for the war.

One view, held by the Pentagon and some defense experts, argues that bin Laden's death is a rationale for continuing the current strategy in Afghanistan. Others say, among other things, that al-Qaeda has been dealt such a severe blow that the United States has essentially achieved its goals of mortally crippling the terror network responsible for the 9/11 attacks. And still others, including CFR President Richard Haass, argue that it's simply time to reduce the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and scale back American objectives there.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle (WashPost) have called for the United States to speed up its withdrawal from Afghanistan, although they don't have the support of their respective party's leadership, who support President Barack Obama's current course. A group of eight House members sent a letter to President Obama arguing for a quick drawdown of troops and to re-examine U.S. nation-building there. The administration has set a July deadline to announce how many of the 30,000 troops surged into Afghanistan in the past year would be withdrawn.

CFR's Leslie Gelb writes in the Wall Street Journal: "Afghanistan is no longer a war about vital American security interests. It is about the failure of America's political elites to face two plain facts: The al-Qaeda terrorist threat is no longer centered in that ancient battleground, and the battle against the Taliban is mainly for Afghans themselves." Princeton's Anne Marie Slaughter, recently a top State Department official, says "the United States has a strong interest in seeing Afghans succeed in securing and rebuilding their country, but not so strong an interest that it means Americans will do the job in their stead." (Foreign Policy)

In contrast, others argue that pulling back now would be, essentially, to quit while U.S.-led forces are finally gaining traction. "Withdrawing forces from Afghanistan and cutting all aid to Pakistan would merely reinforce two of the most prevalent conspiracy theories in South Asia—that the United States will always abandon those who rely on it, and that we were only there to get bin Laden anyway," write Frederick W. Kagan and Kimberly Kagan in the Weekly Standard. Terrorism expert Bruce Riedel contends that bases in Afghanistan are necessary to project power into Afghanistan (DailyBeast), and that not only would the Karzai government not allow U.S. bases in the country if U.S. troops pull out before the government is ready, it would probably quickly cut a deal with the Taliban. And CFR's Max Boot writes, "If we give more time to Gen. David Petraeus and his successor, Gen. John Allen, they can strengthen Afghanistan enough—mainly by building up the indigenous security forces—to prevent a Taliban takeover or a ruinous civil war even after U.S. forces finally start drawing down."

In the short run, some experts consider it likely that the arguments of those who want to abbreviate the mission in Afghanistan will have less sway than those who support Obama's current course. As Gerald Seib writes in the Wall Street Journal, "Congress, never eager to force a president's hand on a matter of national security, is even more reluctant to do so when that president is seen as succeeding. And for now, at least, the bin Laden operation has given that air of success."

Additional Analysis:

The death of Osama bin Laden hasn't stopped the Taliban in Afghanistan, says this Foreign Policy piece.

Perpetual war has become part of become the favored ideology of liberal interventionists, conservatives and realists, writes James Joyner on TheAtlantic.com.

CFR's Stephen Biddle testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the long-term vision needed to guide short-term decisions in Afghanistan.

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