Will the killing of Osama bin Laden really be “a game-changer” in the Afghan war?
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said it may be. And this is the big question I’ll be exploring on a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan, starting this week.
Will bin Laden’s demise speed the U.S. troop exit? My gut tells me it will make a difference, but not as big as Congress and a war-weary public would like.
The state of play in Afghanistan was already shifting before the Navy SEALs found bin Laden. President Obama had announced he would start withdrawing U.S. soldiers in July (after temporarily surging troop levels last year), with a goal of removing combat forces by 2014.
And Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton made a landmark speech in February stating that the United States is now actively seeking a political solution to the conflict. She said that, in 2011, “we are launching a diplomatic surge to move this conflict toward a political outcome.” She also indicated the White House is now feeling out whether senior Taliban leaders are willing to enter a negotiating process.
Even before bin Laden’s death, the 2011 and 2014 target dates had focused the attention of countries in the area on the need to prepare for a U.S. drawdown. All of Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Iran, China, Russia, India, and especially Pakistan, had begun jockeying for position and influence in Kabul.
Transition had become a nervous-making buzzword in Kabul, as Afghan leaders sought commitments from Washington to continue aid and training after most troops leave.
Yet I was a doubter on the timing of a peace process. There was no sign yet that top Taliban leaders were willing to give up their ideology and accept less than full power in Kabul. President Hamid Karzai’s efforts to reach out to Taliban leaders didn’t appear fruitful. Nor was it clear who could speak for their several factions: A Taliban impostor made it all the way to a meeting with Karzai.
And the U.S. military, under Gen. David Petraeus, was holding out for the most minimal drawdown in July in hopes of further degrading the Taliban’s leadership, mostly by drones and the work of Special Forces. The time for peace talks didn’t seem ripe.
Meantime, Pakistani leaders had made clear they wanted to dominate any peace process, and to ensure that their proteges, the Afghan Taliban, got a lion’s share of power. When Pakistani Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani recently visited Karzai, he demanded that the Afghan leader ensure that India be cut out of any role in Afghanistan’s future.
The whole notion of a peace process seemed rooted in dreamland. Then came the raid on Abbottabad. And now suddenly everything is in motion. In rapid motion. The drama will be in full play in the coming weeks.
So I am arriving in the region at a fascinating moment.
After bin Laden’s death, Taliban leaders based in Pakistan have to feel more vulnerable. Obama has made clear the United States will go after Islamists there who threaten us — even if Pakistan won’t.
Pakistan’s military — despite its defensive bluster over the Navy SEAL raid — may even have to reconsider whether its pro-Taliban, anti-India policy really advances its security interests. (This would be the real game changer, though I know chances are slim.)
And India’s prime minister, very shrewdly, has used this moment to suggest that bin Laden’s death can be an opportunity to finally bury regional rivalries and work for peace. Last week, on his first visit to Afghanistan in six years, Manmohan Singh tried to assuage paranoid Pakistani fears that India wants to use Afghanistan as a base from which to work to dismember Pakistan. He stressed, pointedly, that India’s interest in Afghanistan lay with stability and development, not anti-Pakistani machinations.
Will Pakistan respond by loosening its hold on and support for the Afghan Taliban? Is the Taliban now willing to enter a serious peace process?
Or, even after bin Laden’s death, is the Taliban ready to wait out the Americans? Does it still expect that a U.S. exit will permit it to take over, as the population rejects greedy local leaders imposed by a corrupt Karzai government in Kabul?
I will be asking Afghans, Pakistanis — and U.S. civilian and military officials — about their expectations for the transition and for possible peace talks.
I will travel to Kandahar, Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban and its leader Mullah Omar, to see whether the U.S. troop surge there has made Afghans any more secure. And if the Taliban has been cleared out, are the Afghans capable of holding the turf when U.S. troops leave?
I will talk to Afghan opposition leaders, and leaders of civil society, including women, about whether they want the return of the Taliban in any form. If a majority of the population opposes such an outcome, it will lead to renewed civil war and chaos — a climate in which radical Islamists can flourish. And such chaos on Pakistan’s border will strengthen the Pakistani Taliban forces, who seek to take control of their nuclear-armed state.
The sad truth is, in order for bin Laden’s death to resonate, a lot of actors in the Afghan conflict will have to choose reason over emotion. Pakistan will have to recognize that the biggest threat to its survival is not India, but its foolhardy support of radical Islamists. Karzai will have to recognize his regime’s corruption plays into the hands of the Taliban. And the Taliban will have to recognize it can’t again rule Kabul.
So is bin Laden’s death a “game-changer”? No one knows yet, but I will be asking everyone I meet that question and writing what I find along the way.