Two apparently distinct facts have drawn our attention. The first and most obvious is U.S. President Barack Obama’s announcement late May 1 that Osama bin Laden had been killed. The second is Obama’s April 28 announcement that Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will replace Leon Panetta as CIA director. Together, the events create the conditions for the U.S. president to expand his room to maneuver in the war in Afghanistan and ultimately reorient U.S. foreign-policy priorities.
The U.S. mission in Afghanistan, as stated by Obama, is the destruction of al Qaeda — in particular, of the apex leadership that once proved capable of carrying out transnational, high-casualty attacks. Although al Qaeda had already been severely weakened in Afghanistan and has recently focused more on surviving inside Pakistan than executing meaningful operations, the inability to capture or kill bin Laden meant that the U.S. mission itself had not been completed. With the death of bin Laden, a plausible, if not altogether accurate, political narrative in the United States can develop, claiming that the mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished. During a White House press conference on Monday, U.S. Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan commented on bin Laden’s death, saying “We are going to try to take advantage of this to demonstrate to people in the area that al Qaeda is a thing of the past, and we are hoping to bury the rest of al Qaeda along with Osama bin Laden.”
“With the death of bin Laden, a plausible, if not altogether accurate, political narrative in the United States can develop, claiming that the mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished.”
Petraeus was the architect of the American counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. He symbolized American will in the region. The new appointment effectively sidelines the general. By appointing Petraeus as CIA director (he is expected to assume the position in July), Obama has put the popular general in charge of a complex intelligence bureaucracy. From Langley, Petraeus can no longer be the authoritative military voice on the war effort in Afghanistan. Obama has retained Petraeus as a senior member of the administration while simultaneously isolating him.
Together, the two steps open the door for serious consideration of an accelerated withdrawal of most U.S. forces from Afghanistan. The U.S. political leadership faced difficulty in shaping an exit strategy from Afghanistan with Petraeus in command because the general continued to insist that the war was going reasonably well. Whether or not this accurately represented the military campaign (and we tend to think that the war had more troubles than Petraeus was admitting), Petraeus’ prestige made it difficult to withdraw over his objections.
Petraeus is now being removed from the Afghanistan picture. Bin Laden has already been removed. With his death, an argument in the United States can be made that the U.S. mission has been accomplished and that, while there may be room for some manner of special-operations counterterrorism forces, the need for additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan no longer exists. It is difficult to ignore the fact that bin Laden was killed, not in Afghanistan, but deep within Pakistani borders. With the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan dissipating, the nation-building mission in Afghanistan becomes unnecessary and nonessential. In addition, with tensions in the Persian Gulf building in the lead-up to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, ending the war in Afghanistan critically releases U.S. forces for operations elsewhere. It is therefore possible for the United States to consider an accelerated withdrawal in a way that wasn’t possible before.
We are not saying that bin Laden’s death and Petraeus’ new appointment are anything beyond coincidental. We are saying that the confluence of the two events creates politically strategic opportunities for the U.S. administration that did not exist before, the most important of which is the possibility for a dramatic shift in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan.