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Time to refocus role in Afghanistan

By Matthew Leatherman
mleatherman@stimson.org
This weekís breathless news ó ěthe United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Ladenî ó comes with a pointed caveat. ěThereís no doubt that al Qaeda will continue to pursue attacks against us,î President Obama stressed. ěWe must ó and we will ó remain vigilant at home and abroad.î
Obamaís right. Not only has bin Laden been isolated from the organization he founded, its most active cell is in an entirely different region. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula now leads the effort to attack U.S. territory. And, with the recent bombing in Marrakesh, it seems that al Qaedaís Magreb affiliate may rival its co-conspirators in southwest Asia. Bin Ladenís death will not sap their capabilities one bit, and it likely will inspire them to retaliate.
Vigilance, though, means concentrating without distraction on the threat at hand and engaging it with a well-tailored strategy. The U.S. rightly will maintain a laser focus on al Qaedaís Magreb and peninsular syndicates ó but what about Afghanistan? Al Qaeda is no longer headquartered there (or anywhere, for that matter) and, according to Gen. David Petraeus, it hosts 100 or fewer of its made men. Why then does the United States have more tan 102,000 of our forces fighting there?
Bin Ladenís death is significant because it will put this question squarely on the political and strategic agenda. Nothing about the logic of our commitment in Afghanistan is different today than it was yesterday but, with the warís symbol literally buried at sea, Americans will tune back in and begin to question that logic.
Theyíre not going to like what they find. We set out to depose the Taliban government and dismember al Qaedaís organizational network. Instead of withdrawing after achieving this, two consecutive administrations signed up to build a modern Afghan state where none previously existed. That fight has remarkably little to do with our original mission, likely is beyond the realm of possibility, and has come at an enormous cost that includes thousands of service-membersí lives and hundreds of billions of dollars.
Bin Laden was the last thing connecting the Afghanistan war to American interests. His long-delayed demise gives the administration space for a serious strategy review in June and a significant drawdown in July. The United States didnít enter this war to call an Afghan state into reality or to reshape Afghan culture, and neither should be prerequisites for leaving. Weíve achieved our priorities and topped it off with an emphatic exclamation point. Our next move ought to be turning to a new priority, re-establishing strategic and budgetary discipline over the many missions now burdening the military, rather than contriving a new rationale to fight a war already won.
Former Salisbury resident Matthew Leatherman is a research associate with the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank that studies security issues. This article originally appeared in the Stimson Centerís blog, The Will and the Wallet.

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