The American mission in Afghanistan changed with two quick shots from a Navy SEAL last Sunday.
The calls for reflection on the nature of the war on terror with the death of Osama bin Laden have merit. Al-Qaida and its leader were the reasons behind 100,000 U.S. troops facing daily dangers.
In a world without bin Laden, the terror war could be as legitimately staged in Somalia, Yemen or Iran.
Even before bin Laden’s demise, the focus on Afghanistan had seemed puzzling: The al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan was down to 100 members, according to recent reports. Meanwhile, new risks were appearing, such as the threat that revolts against regimes in Syria and Libya could create additional power vacuums and terrorist havens.
This isn’t to say the United States should pull out of the central Asian nation this summer. There is still the threat that ― just as in the 1990s ― the Taliban could take control and offer a safe harbor for those planning attacks against us.
But the death of bin Laden does call for a full review of the mission.
First consider the numbers: After dipping to a post-9/11 low of $14.5 billion a year in 2004, the Obama administration’s Afghan surge has pumped the annual costs up to $94 billion in 2010 and $119.5 billion this year.
To put those numbers in perspective, 2011 costs triple the $38 billion in cuts that almost led Congress to shut down the federal government and represent about 10 percent of the annual federal deficit.
Budget is not the only, or primary, concern regarding international terrorism. But at a time when the nation has been forced to trim needed services costing a fraction of maintaining a massive force in Afghanistan, money is a consideration.
Beyond that, consider the strategy: The Obama plan all along has been to turn Afghan security over to Afghans. That’s been difficult to imagine because the Taliban maintain influence in much of the nation, especially in remote areas.
But the threat of the Taliban is not a direct threat to the United States. The Taliban are a threat because in the past they have sheltered others seeking to harm the west. With al-Qaida scattered and on the run, and its leader and primary means of fundraising dead, a continued battle with the Taliban means putting America’s sons and daughters at risk to stop a future threat from developing. There are better uses of U.S. troops and cash.
American troops were always moving toward the role of advice and training, and the timetable for this should be accelerated. As incoming U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker has noted in the past, nation-building in Afghanistan does not mean rebuilding civil society, it means creating it. Our role has to be support. This means U.S. troop levels within a year could well drop in half, or more, and still accomplish its needed mission.
What active military involvement we have going forward should be tightly focused on mopping up the remnants of al-Qaida, a job likely made much easier with the reams of information gathered from bin Laden’s complex this week, and keeping an eye on other groups that might be forming. This, however, is Special Forces work, not requiring nearly the numbers of the broad military mission now operating.
(The Kansas City Star, May 6)