Politico Op–Ed: The bin Laden Rorschach test

May 18, 2011

Around Washington, lawmakers, policy experts and advocates for and against the war in Afghanistan are deploying Osama bin Laden’s death to strengthen their arguments about the U.S. footprint there. There seems to be something to fortify and satisfy all sides.

Bin Laden’s end has become a policy Rorschach test for which views on the past set the tone for the future. Who wins the perceptions war to shape the Afghanistan narrative is likely to determine what happens next in America’s longest war.

Bin Laden’s killing has not changed minds — but it has cemented opinions. Now those in the know want to know just what Gen. David Petraeus thinks, since he is one of the few voices of influence whose position for or against the continued conflict is not yet fully understood.

Will the CIA director-designate, who says he won’t be president, back a scaled-down footprint, starting with the planned July withdrawal? Or will he be a forceful voice for staying the course — which means July is a start, but far from a finish?

On either side, lines are drawn. For opponents of the current counterinsurgency campaign, bin Laden’s death bolstered their case that America’s work in Afghanistan is over. The U.S. invaded in 2001, this argument goes, to hunt the Al Qaeda fighters responsible for 9/11 and their allies.

From their perspective, now that Al Qaeda’s leader is gone, and Al Qaeda operatives are reportedly on the run, Afghanistan is now a threat along the lines of Yemen or Somalia – a failed state that must be monitored for its terrorist ties but that does not require 100,000 U.S. soldiers on the ground. Troops should come home now, and July 2011 must be a real, rather than symbolic, beginning of the end.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) summed this up. “We went there to get Osama bin Laden,” Frank said, “And we have now gotten Osama bin Laden. This does strengthen the case [for withdrawal].”

For backers of the current course, the bin Laden news bolstered their case that this war is on track. From their perspective, the Navy SEAL operation is more proof that the U.S. strategy is weakening Al Qaeda and demoralizing the Taliban. Now is the time to stick with the counterinsurgency effort, so that any Taliban peace deal may be conducted from a position of strength. The Taliban may now be separated from an Al Qaeda, whose strength is waning. Accelerated troop withdrawal would mean erasing hard-fought gains. And scaling back on a civilian surge that they see as making headway in the battle to build skills and institutions — and win hearts and minds.

“This war on terrorism is critical to the safety and security of the American people,” Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) summed up. “We still face a complex and dangerous terrorist threat. And it’s important that we remain vigilant.”

So far, President Barack Obama has translated bin Laden’s demise into a polling bump and a boost for his national security credentials. But the administration has shown no signs of showing its cards on just what July 2011 will mean in terms of troop numbers.

White House spokesman Jay Carney argues from the podium, “conditions on the ground” will determine how many servicemen and women come home this summer, not the president’s shifting polling numbers. “Getting bin Laden,” Carney says, was “not the only part” of Obama’s plan to eliminate the threat posed by Al Qaeda.

Inside the Administration, the schisms that surfaced in the 2009 debate around whether to send more troops to Afghanistan are back at center stage. Each side interprets the bin Laden death as boosting its own argument. But this time, those who sided with Vice President Joe Biden and his call for a lighter footprint versus a full-blown troop surge have the momentum.

No one knows quite yet exactly what the bin Laden news means for the war, say those staffing Afghanistan issues, but those who fought for more troops two years back know the debate has shifted.

Among the voices that are likely to be most important in deciphering what bin Laden’s end means to the war’s finish is Petraeus. The military leader, credited with the successful troop surge in Iraq, now leads the Afghan war and soon will return home to head the nation’s intelligence agency. Where he will end up when it comes to ramping down the war effort is a question many in Washington are asking.

Petraeus gave each side of the Rorschach divide something to work with during his recent interview with the Associated Press. He said the war in Afghanistan is not yet over, warning that there are more terrorist groups than Al Qaeda seeking to use the country as safe haven, and noting, “targeted military strikes don’t produce security on their own.”

But he also noted that bin Laden’s death may move the Taliban toward a renunciation of Al Qaeda – a reconciliation pre-condition for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Afghan government that could set the stage for substantive peace negotiations. That these negotiations are now the only way out is the one key point on which both sides agree.

Defense Sec. Robert Gates called bin Laden’s death a “game-changer” for the U.S. war in Afghanistan. But just how it has changed the game depends on who is speaking and what they thought of the war before the Al Qaeda leader’s death. With July nearing, the volume is increasing. And so are the stakes.

The next few months will tell which side has gained most from the death of Al Qaeda’s infamous leader — and on which side of the Rorschach divide the Obama, Petraeus and the public eventually alight.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is the author of “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana,” about an Afghan teenager whose business created work for women under the Taliban. She is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.