Washington’s European allies largely echoed Cameron’s mixture of optimism and caution on Monday, with leaders in Berlin, Paris and other capitals hailing the U.S. operation in Pakistan. In a region that has come under direct threat from al-Qaeda, bin Laden’s death appeared to restore a measure of confidence in U.S. intelligence and military capabilities. But like Obama, European leaders tempered their words with reminders that al-Qaeda remains an active and definitive threat.
“The forces of peace achieved a victory last night,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a statement. “But that doesn’t mean international terrorism has been beaten yet.”
Less than a week after al-Qaeda’s North Africa branch released tapes of four slain French hostages — an attempt to pressure the government in Paris to withdraw troops from Afghanistan — President Nicholas Sarkozy’s office issued a statement saying that for bin Laden’s thousands of victims, “justice has been done.”
Sarkozy hailed what he described as U.S. tenacity in hunting down bin Laden a decade after al-Qaeda’s attacks in New York and Washington. He said the terrorist leader’s slaying marks “a major event in the worldwide struggle against terrorism” but cautioned that France and the world should not let down their guard because the threat remains.
Nevertheless, analysts were divided over how bin Laden’s death would affect allied commitment to the highly unpopular war in Afghanistan.
Particularly at a time when Britain and France are stretching their militaries in Libya, some analysts said there would be a temptation to see Monday’s operation as a good reason to accelerate a withdrawal.
Daniel Korski, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the region’s powers had initially engaged in Afghanistan under the banner of “the hunt for bin Laden.” When that failed, he said, the mission there “was broadened out to a more traditional peacekeeping role. It was about children and schools, about giving girls opportunities they never had before.” But now, he said, bin Laden’s sudden end may give the leaders the cover they need to speed withdrawal and still claim victory.
Other analysts resoundingly disagree. Robin Niblett, director of the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the caution expressed by leaders across the region underscored the sense in Europe of a lingering threat from al-Qaeda. In addition, he noted that Britain — by far the largest European contributor of troops to Afghanistan — has clearly stated that the Taliban, not al-Qaeda, remains the major foe. “I don’t think this changes the strategy or the timetable,” Niblett said. “They want to get out around 2014, and they don’t want to leave behind a failed state. Whether Osama bin Laden is alive or dead is not going to change that.”