The killing of Osama bin Laden by U.S. Navy SEALs in Pakistan has prompted calls for pulling U.S. troops out of Afghanistan. A bipartisan group of U.S. legislators has introduced a bill demanding an accelerated drawdown of troops and regular reporting by the White House on the human and financial costs of remaining in Afghanistan.
This is unfortunate.
Instead of using the death of bin Laden as an excuse to give up the fight, the United States should build on it to advance the Afghanistan strategy, which stands a greater chance of success in the context of a degraded al-Qaida.
While a transition to Afghan-led security is beginning, we should take care not to move hastily, lest we squander the gains made in the past six months. A recent report by the Defense Department noted that U.S. and coalition forces have made "tangible progress" by arresting the momentum of the insurgency in much of Afghanistan and disrupting insurgent leadership networks. Afghan security forces are increasing in size and quality and taking a larger role in security operations.
This progress will allow for the transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces in seven areas of the country this summer. Instead of talking about large-scale troop withdrawals, the United States should use bin Laden's killing to try to encourage the Taliban to finally break ranks with al-Qaida. The Taliban's statement that bin Laden's killing will create impetus in their "jihad against the invaders" shows no sign of compromise, however.
Only time will tell if this position represents unified thinking within the ranks of the movement.
Talk of speeding up troop withdrawals would undercut the opportunity to split the Taliban from al-Qaida. It would strengthen the hand of those in the Taliban who argue they should continue fighting, since it's only a matter of time before U.S. forces exit the region.
Even if the time is not yet ripe for a peace settlement in Afghanistan, the United States needs to decide who is worth pursuing and who is unreachable in this endeavor.
There is still tension within the administration over both the pace of the Afghan troop drawdown, as well as the shape and contour of a potential settlement. Some in the Obama administration believe that if Washington would only turn its attention from fighting to making peace, it would grasp that elusive brass ring of a settlement. This camp also assumes a political settlement would involve power-sharing with current Taliban leaders.
This is dangerously naive. The Taliban can be a ruthless and committed foe. And just because they are Afghans — not Arabs — does not mean they aren't as committed to a violent Islamist agenda as their al-Qaida partners.
This is not a matter of merely bringing the various protagonists to the table to hammer out a diplomatic agreement. A split within the Taliban may be necessary before any serious negotiations can begin. There is still work to be done in Afghanistan to prevent the country from returning to its status as an international terrorist safe haven.
Any future peace settlement will be influenced by the position of Taliban insurgents on the battlefield.
While things are moving in the right direction for the coalition forces, it is not yet time to shift all gears from fighting to making peace. This time will come when coalition and Afghan forces are at their strongest position possible on the battlefield.
It is telling that a few days after bin Laden's death, more than 10,000 Afghans gathered in Kabul to oppose reconciliation with the Taliban and any role for Pakistan in peace talks. Ultimately Pakistan should have a role in an Afghan peace settlement, but it must be on U.S. terms.
The mood in Afghanistan after bin Laden's death demonstrates that most Afghans agree. The global terrorist threat spans the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan. What happens in one country will affect the other.
Bin Laden's death may signal a turning point in the fight against terrorism. But to use it as an excuse for rapidly withdrawing troops from Afghanistan is shortsighted and would spell disaster for the region, where Islamist extremist groups threaten civil order in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Now is not the time to get carried away by the successful operation against bin Laden. Rather, it is time to push the U.S. advantage in the region and demonstrate that just as Washington would not quit in hunting down bin Laden, it also will not quit in ensuring a new future for Afghanistan.