In fact, many feared it could get worse. One persistent worry repeated here was that U.S. support for the war could erode at an accelerated pace now that America’s most wanted man is dead. With that decade-long goal achieved, Afghan officials said, the case for troop withdrawal becomes that much more convincing for Americans.
“Americans will forget Afghanistan again,” said one senior Afghan official, echoing the frequent lament that the U.S. gave up on the region after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Many Afghans say the death of bin Laden in a town deep inside Pakistan should instead convince the U.S. that a successful outcome in Afghanistan depends on U.S. pressure on insugents based in that country.
President Hamid Karzai, who praised American troops for killing bin Laden, used the opportunity to reiterate his message that the locus of terrorism remains beyond Afghan borders. “For years we have said that the fight against terrorism is not in Afghan villages and houses,” he said. “Stop bombarding Afghan villages and searching Afghan people.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top U.S. officials sought to dispel the notion that the U.S. would lose any resolve in Afghanistan. “Our message to the Taliban remains the same, but today, it may have even greater resonance,” Clinton said at the State Department. “You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us. But you can make the choice to abandon al-Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.”
President Obama has already marked July of this year as the time when U.S. troops will begin to leave, starting to slowly reduce the 30,000 additional troops he sent to Afghanistan 18 months before. Even though the vast majority of the U.S. troops have been fighting the Taliban, their presence has been justified in large part by al-Qaeda’s continued survival.
“With July 2011 around corner it now easier to argue that the fight against al-Qaeda and whatever is left of it should focus on Pakistan, and it is time to end the war in Afghanistan,” said Vali Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Tufts University and until recently a senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the State Department. “With Bin Laden’s death...there is no strong argument for continuing with a full-fledged military operation in Afghanistan.”
The consensus view has long been that the Taliban’s top leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, the next closest figure in stature to bin Laden, along with his council of commanders and many lesser insurgents also take refuge in Pakistan. For just as long, Pakistani officials have denied, in public and private, that bin Laden or other top fighters were living on their soil.
“This obviously can be no better proof,” said Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, referring to bin Laden’s death in Abbottabad. “What kind of arrangements were made for bin Laden? Who was providing support for him from the Pakistani side? Were Pakistan groups which the [Pakistani intelligence service] ISI has a relationship with, were they protecting him?”
As more facts emerge about Pakistan’s relationship with bin Laden, its government and military will “become the center of world attention,” said Enayat Qasimi, a former senior foreign policy aide to Karzai. “Pakistan will have to make significant concessions to restore its credibility and win the trust of the international community, especially the U.S.”
Afghans urged U.S. officials not to lose this window of opportunity. “The West has to very brutally hit the evidence into the face of Pakistanis and tell them ‘look, this is no longer deniable, this is evidence earned with blood and treasure and hard work, you have got to fundamentally change the direction of your country,” said Amarullah Saleh, the former director of Afghanistan’s intelligence agency.
If the Taliban’s leadership does come under more pressure, or feels more vulnerable after bin Laden’s killing, it could make them more willing to negotiate with the U.S. and Afghan governments to find a political settlement to the war. Such exploratory discussions have happened at different levels within the insurgent ranks but to date no serious negotiations have begun.
“Afghan Taliban leaders are bound to read into the killing of [bin Laden] that they are not secure in Pakistan,” said Michael Semple, a Taliban expert who has been advocate of negotiations. “This will make them doubt their ability to ‘ride out’ the U.S. surge.”
Since early in the war, after bin Laden and his deputies escaped through Tora Bora to Pakistan, the number of al-Qaeda operatives operating in Afghanistan has been small. For the past few years, U.S. military and intelligence officials have estimated the number to be from about 100 or fewer, compared with the tens of thousands of Taliban fighters.
“During a year in Kandahar I never heard about the capture of a single [al-Qaeda] fighter and most of the reports of Arabs in the area sounded like Bigfoot sightings,” said one former U.S. official. “No one on the Afghan side seemed too worried about [al-Qaeda] coming back into the country and it was pretty clear to all of us that Pakistan -- not [bin Laden] -- was calling the shots in this war.”
Still, they have played a significant role, as fundraisers and advisers on plots and technical matters of weaponry and explosives. Most importantly, bin Laden and his al-Qaeda followers have acted as an inspiration for other like-minded jihadists intent on waging war against America and the West, inside and outside Afghanistan.
“Number one, this is a significant blow to the insurgents in Afghanistan, to the general capability of al-Qaeda, and to the morale of all those who have been protecting terrorist leaders,” said Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan’s former interior minister. “This will also mean a significant reduction in the capability of al-Qaeda to provide support to the Afghan terrorists. It doesn’t mean it will completely stop.”
Ultimately, the insurgent network in Afghanistan is too large and decentralized to suffer a mortal blow from the death of one leader, no matter how charismatic or influential.
“A warning to the United States and the rest of our NATO allies,” Atmar said. “This should not be seen as mission accomplished.”
Or as Matt Sherman, a former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, put it: “The war goes on.”