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    South Asia
     May 20, 2011

Osama as an Afghan exit strategy
By Shibil Siddiqi

The United States turned to nation-building in Afghanistan, complete with a dissimulating narrative of liberating women, and importing human rights and democracy, when it failed to get Osama bin Laden "dead or alive". Now Bin Laden is dead, and there are strong indications that his killing will lead to a shift in American strategy in Afghanistan.

The US occupation of Afghanistan faces two distinct military challenges. The first is managing an essentially nationalist Taliban insurgency with Islamist overtones. The second is destroying al-Qaeda, a transnational terrorist organization, and its like-minded allies. Under the operational cover of the former, it is the latter that has informed core American interests in Afghanistan.

In a speech delivered in early 2009, US President Barack Obama

reiterated that the American occupation of Afghanistan had a "clear and focussed goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan ..." American intelligence assessments have also concluded for years that al-Qaeda has only a nominal presence left in Afghanistan.

Its operatives have long since migrated to the relative security of Pakistan, and have set up more lethal franchises in Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and the Maghreb. Al-Qaeda's links with Afghanistan's Taliban insurgency are also tenuous at best.

Leaving Afghanistan on the basis of intelligence estimates, however, lacks both the psychological satisfaction and narrative power of exiting on the back of a job well done. The problem, from the American perspective, in acting on such assessments has been pulling off an American withdrawal that is not seen by the American public and the wider world as a strategic defeat. Such a perception would undoubtedly diminish American power.

In this context, Bin Laden's killing has provided Washington an opportune "mission accomplished" moment. The US can now begin a shift back to the old script about Bin Laden being the effective marker for success in Afghanistan, and sever its counter-terrorism objectives from the quagmire of counter-insurgency.

For it is clear that the ramped up counter-insurgency effort has, despite some tactical successes in Afghanistan's south, been a strategic failure. Far from imposing a new military reality on the ground, it has been unable even to alter the Taliban's perception that they are winning the war (simply because they are not losing it).

Another indication of a brewing change in policy was the announcement on April 28 - two days before the Bin Laden kill-mission - that the top US commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, had been appointed the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The timing of Petreaus' appointment is highly notable, given that on April 28 the Bin Laden operation was probably in its final planning stages. Also, his CIA directorship is set to begin in September, when the American "surge" in Afghanistan is to begin its drawdown.

Fresh from the "success" of his troop surge in Iraq, perhaps Petreaus believed that Afghanistan could become his victory lap. As someone who has literally written the book on American counter-insurgency, he has been a strong proponent of such a troop-heavy approach in Afghanistan. He also proved to be a wily political operator. Utilizing skilful lobbying and public relations tactics, Petraeus deftly outmaneuvered those within the Obama administration, including most notably Vice President Joe Biden, who favored an early pullback by switching to a counter-terrorism model.

As the August deadline for a drawdown of the "surge" approaches, Petraeus has largely stuck to his guns, favoring only a token scaling-down of troop levels. However, as head of the CIA, he will ironically gain oversight of counter-terrorism operations, but will lose his clout in directing the military mission, including the pace of the American withdrawal.

The Afghanistan war is already deeply unpopular with most Americans - a significant factor with elections presidential elections slated for next year. In addition, there is already a rising chorus within Congress calling for a faster drawdown in light of Bin Laden's death, citing Afghanistan's diminished strategic value as a result of the dispersal of al-Qaeda, and the fiscal crisis in the US.

With Bin Laden in the body-bag, and without the resistance of Washington's star general, the White House will find it easier to adopt an accelerated half-life for its counter-insurgency. Already, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed the view that Bin Laden's death, "opens up possibilities for dealing with the Taliban that did not exist before".

This does not mean that American military presence in Afghanistan will be reduced to zero anytime soon. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has reiterated that it will hover by Kabul's side for the long-haul, despite Bin Laden's demise and even once security responsibilities are handed over to Afghan forces in 2014.

This presents a strong likelihood of an abundance of military trainers and a rump of troops remaining in Kabul for years to come. Moreover, the US will also likely continue to conduct counter-terrorism operations using Special Forces and CIA operatives in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. But there is little doubt that the American occupation of Afghanistan has effectively entered the end-game.

Indeed, the US is conscious of the opportunity-cost of its military power bogged down in Afghanistan as its global competitors, including China and Russia, continue their rise. Thus, the US has been searching for an exit strategy for a while, hinging it largely on a question of political timing rather than military exigencies. This has mostly revolved around exploiting Pakistani intelligence links to the Taliban to target their leadership and force them to come to the negotiating table.

Pakistan's cooperation with the US has been opportunistic and stuttering in this regard, in the hopes that prolonging the process will enable it to drive the direction of the negotiations. Pakistan believes that this will fulfill its own strategic paradigm of ensuring a friendly and anti-Indian regime in Kabul.

But Bin Laden's death has altered the American political calculus, delivering up fresh possibilities for crafting an exit strategy. Though it still remains an important link to the Taliban, Pakistan's leverage will diminish both as a result of political pressure over the potential complicity of its security establishment in hiding Bin Laden, as well as in the face of an as yet embryonic consensus in Washington towards a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan in light of Bin Laden's death.

The American invasion and occupation of Afghanistan was always about demonstrating American power and hitting back at Bin Laden, even if other narratives had to be crafted to justify the mission's high-mindedness or strategic value. With his death in Pakistan, Bin Laden's story can now be uprooted and severed from Afghanistan. Like Bin Laden, the tale of Afghanistan's unending suffering will also be buried at sea.

Shibil Siddiqi is a Fellow with the Center for the Study of Global Power and Politics at Trent University and a contributor to Foreign Policy in Focus, the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives and ZNet. He can be reached at shibil.siddiqi@gmail.com.

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