by Jeb Sharp
Osama Bin Laden's death raises stark questions about US policy in Afghanistan. That policy was the subject of a previously-scheduled hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday. John Kerry, D-MA, chairs the committee, called the death of Bin Laden a seminal moment and an event of enormous consequence. And he acknowledged it raises big questions about US policy in Afghanistan.
"With the death of Bin Laden, some people are sure to ask why don't we pack up and leave Afghanistan," Kerry said. "So it's even more compelling that we examine carefully, what is at stake, what goals are legitimate, and realistic, what is our real security challenge and how do we achieve the interests of our country?"
In that sense Bin Laden's death simply crystallized the whole point of the hearing – to zero in on US goals in Afghanistan and how best to achieve them. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations says success in Afghanistan has been loosely defined as achieving an Afghan government that can hold off the Taliban. He doesn't buy it.
"Let me just say as directly as I can, I am deeply and profoundly skeptical that this policy will work," said Haass. "Given the nature of Afghanistan and in particular the weakness of its central institutions and in particular the reality that Pakistan will continue to provide a sanctuary for the Taliban."
A strategic distraction
Haass calls the war in Afghanistan a strategic distraction from other more important priorities. He thinks the US should scale down drastically from the current 100 thousand troops to somewhere between 10 and 25,000 – and then focus more narrowly on counterterrorism goals. He reckons the Obama Administration would save $75 billion dollars a year if it did so.
"That is one-fourth of the fiscal savings everyone suggests we need," Kerry said. "That is an extraordinary bit of progress that we could get."
But Anne-Marie Slaughter of Princeton, who has just finished a stint as head of policy and planning at the State Dept., is more optimistic about the prospects of success in Afghanistan. She agrees with Haass that the ultimate goal is to prevent terrorist attacks on the United States – but she believes you have to do a lot more work in Afghanistan to ensure that.
"I don't believe you can accomplish that goal without a political settlement that, longer-term, produces a measure of security, a measure of stability and a measure of self reliance," said Slaughter. "The problem with the strategy that Richard has articulated is that is the strategy we tried. After we invaded Afghanistan we pursued a narrow counterterrorism strategy. And the result was the Taliban came surging back."
A new opportunity
Slaughter advocates continuing a comprehensive approach that includes pushing for a political settlement, something she thinks is made easier by Bin Laden's death.
"The death of Osama Bin Laden creates a new opportunity to begin those negotiations," said Slaughter. "The United States has already made clear his death is not the end of the war in Afghanistan but we should now mark this moment as the beginning of the end, as a moment that allows us to pivot toward a comprehensive political settlement that will bring stability and security to Afghanistan and greater security to Pakistan, while still allowing the United States to take whatever measures are necessary to protect ourselves against al-Qaeda."
If Tuesday's hearing was meant to clarify goals in Afghanistan, it may have had the opposite effect. One of the witnesses, former diplomat Ronald Neumann, echoed the committee's concerns that there's no simple agreed statement of purpose for the war there.
"We desperately need it," said Neumann. "Not just for the American people but we are not projecting to anyone in Afghanistan a clarity of purpose right now and that is enormously important and it's debilitating."
Neumann said he doesn't have the exact words either, but in his view the Taliban can't be allowed to win. The hearing was about Afghanistan but US policy there is linked explicitly to US policy in Pakistan. Richard Haass says it's hard to imagine a more complicated bilateral relationship than the one between Washington and Islamabad.
"Let me suggest a simple guide to US foreign policy when it comes to Pakistan," said Haass. "We should cooperate where and when we can. But we should act independently where and when we must. And the recent operation that killed Osama Bin Laden is a case in point."