WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden's death could force President Barack Obama to change his strategy for ending the nearly decade-long Afghan war, including keeping tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan at least until 2014, according to some Western experts and officials.
The key rationale underpinning Obama's strategy — repeated in every major statement that the president or his lieutenants make on the war — is that the massive U.S. troop presence is required to stop the Taliban from retaking power in Afghanistan, which could allow al Qaida to use the country again as a sanctuary from which to attack the United States.
But bin Laden's death on Sunday in a U.S. commando raid on a compound in northeastern Pakistan dealt a huge blow to al Qaida that will almost certainly fuel domestic opposition to the war, some officials and experts said. Polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans oppose the war.
"With al Qaida taken down a big notch, how are we going to sell what we are doing?" asked a veteran U.S. diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous in order to speak freely. "I wouldn't be surprised to see policy shifts" after Army Gen. David Petraeus relinquishes command of U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan this summer.
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"The American people are going to be pretty quick to write the obituary of al Qaida because bin Laden is dead," said Christine Fair, an expert at Georgetown University, who warned that doing so "is premature" because the terrorist network remains a threat.
One key pillar of Obama's strategy is already facing an uncertain future as a result of bin Laden's death: the billions of dollars in U.S. aid that Pakistan receives in return for cooperating in fighting terrorism and closing the havens that the Afghan Taliban and allied groups maintain inside its borders.
Key lawmakers indicated on Tuesday that Congress could slash the $3.1 billion the administration is seeking in 2012 for Pakistan if it is determined that the Pakistani army or spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, were complicit in hiding bin Laden outside the city of Abbottabad.
"I think we have to know whether they (the Pakistanis) knew. If they didn't know, why didn't they know? Was this just benign indifference or indifference with a motive?" said Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Suspicions of Pakistani complicity were fueled by charges that the ISI has been secretly backing the Afghan Taliban and allied groups in a bid to put a government in Kabul that favors Pakistan over its foe, India.
Pakistan denies the allegations and disavows knowing that bin Laden's hideout was in an area filled with military facilities and retired officers, 35 miles by air from Islamabad, the capital.
The White House said Tuesday that bin Laden's killing was consistent with its strategy, under which U.S. troops will begin withdrawing in July and Afghan forces, who are being trained in greater numbers, will gradually assume greater security responsibilities before taking over the entire country by 2014.
"The president's plan is on track," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "And the focus of that operation, of the . . . U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, is on al-Qaida."
Yet senior U.S. intelligence experts estimate that there are fewer than 100 al Qaida fighters in Afghanistan at any time. And the unprecedented level of violence convulsing the country is overwhelmingly caused by the Taliban and allied groups like the Haqqani network.
Moreover, even before bin Laden's death, the terrorist network based on Pakistan's side of the frontier had already been seriously hurt by the losses of key operatives in strikes by missile-firing CIA drone aircraft.
Persisting in using al Qaida to justify a strategy could backfire by fueling opposition to the war among Americans — and a Congress — no longer as worried about terrorism as they are with high joblessness, government spending and the tenuous economic recovery.
"With al Qaeda largely displaced from the country . . . Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal restraints," said Sen. Dick Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The pressure to slash federal spending, coupled with the success of the bin Laden raid, could strengthen the hand of Vice President Joe Biden and other senior officials who advocate major cuts in regular U.S. troops and greater reliance the kind of special forces operations that killed the terrorist leader.
"It was and is an error to equate the Taliban return with al Qaida's return," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and former senior State Department official, told the Senate Foreign Relations Commission on Tuesday. "And if, however, there is some renewed terrorist presence and activist in Afghanistan, we can and should respond to it, much as we do (using special forces) in other countries such as Yemen and Somalia."
"Afghanistan is simply absorbing more economic, military, human, diplomatic and political resources of every sort than it warrants," he said.
Other experts warned that altering course would be a mistake, especially as U.S. troops gird for a major increase in fighting this summer after making progress pacifying Taliban strongholds in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Absent increased military pressure, insurgent leaders are more likely to continue rejecting offers by the Afghan government and its Western backers to begin negotiating a political settlement, they said.
"It's always appropriate when you have a seminal event (like bin Laden's death) to ask whether it's time to reassess. I think unequivocally that the answer is no," said a senior NATO official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "We've shown over the last two years that we have the ability to halt the momentum off the insurgency and reverse it in some places."
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