Foreign Policy Op–Ed: The bin Laden aftermath: What does his death mean for America’s longest–ever war?

May 2, 2011

In Afghanistan Western officials expressed relief at word of Osama bin Laden’s death — and concern that Sunday night’s news would turn up the considerable pressure they already feel to convince the American public to stay the course in Afghanistan now that the man who led America to invade the country is dead. The most pressing question is, how does bin Laden’s death matter for the war in Afghanistan and the ‘war on terror’? And will it change the way Americans view the country’s longest-ever war?

On Monday morning Gen. David Petraeus and his staff at NATO’s headquarters delayed their morning meeting to watch the news stream in on BBC and Al Jazeera while the press operation at the U.S. Embassy translated the President’s statements into Dari and Pashto. Afghan President Hamid Karzai went on Afghan TV to urge the Taliban to learn from the bin Laden killing, a development he called “important news,” and lay down their arms.

While Americans poured into the street in jubilation in Washington and New York, those prosecuting the war in Afghanistan say that they do not want to take their focus off the difficult spring fighting season ahead of them. They are waiting to see whether Congress will see bin Laden’s death as vindication that the current strategy is working — or reason to declare victory and send American troops home as quickly as possible.

The American public is increasingly ready to reverse direction when it comes to Afghanistan policy. In the most recent ABC News/Washington Post polling <>  nearly two-thirds of the public said the war was no longer worth fighting.

“This is a resilient network and he was only one part,” said one senior Western official, who expressed worry that the public would see Osama bin Laden’s death as reason to end the increasingly unpopular war sooner rather than later. U.S. troops are scheduled to begin withdrawing from the country in July 2011, though numbers and details have yet to be determined. “The problem is that there is a misperception that these two things (bin Laden’s death and the war in Afghanistan) are related. They are interrelated as part of a broader war on terror but at the same time the objective here was to make sure this was no longer a safe haven, and that requires a comprehensive counterinsurgency effort of which this was only one part.”

The push to reassure Afghans that bin Laden’s killing does not mean an end to America’s commitment to their country has already begun.

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry released a statement <> Monday pledging that “this victory will not mark the end of our effort against terrorism” and vowing that “America’s strong support for the people of Afghanistan will continue as before.”

But it is not clear that Americans agree. Coming weeks will tell whether they will be willing to see the war through now that bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s most visible symbol, is dead. Can American leaders prove that it is worth continuing the fight to make certain Afghanistan provides no sanctuary to Al Qaeda leaders like him? Or will the end of the bin Laden hunt mark the last of a restless public’s patience with the war effort?

President Barack Obama’s administration has struggled from the beginning to explain the rationale behind the Afghanistan war. They now face the task of convincing the public that the killing of Al Qaeda’s figurehead does not mean the fight is finished, only that it has moved into a next phase. The war against terrorism is far larger than any one leader. And it is a battle in which the phrase “Mission Accomplished” may never be heard.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana