Inquirer Editorial: Rethink Afghanistan

Two Marines talk to an Afghani man during a patrol in Helmand Province earlier this month. Some U.S. troops will come home in July.
Two Marines talk to an Afghani man during a patrol in Helmand Province earlier this month. Some U.S. troops will come home in July. (BAY ISMOYO/AFP/ Getty Images)
Posted: May 09, 2011

President Obama should take full advantage of the opportunity provided by the death of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden to dramatically reshape U.S. policy related to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India.

For a decade, this country has expended an inordinate amount of its resources, not to mention the more than 1,500 soldiers killed, to fight a war in Afghanistan that never promised to yield comparable strategic results.

The cost was swallowed in the mistaken belief that a "war on terror" could be won if a decisive blow were struck on one front. The reality is that terror recognizes no geographical bounds.

If "victory" is ever declared in Afghanistan, it won't mean the end of terrorist threats to the United States. That was made even clearer with bin Laden's death in a Navy SEALs raid. That didn't lead the various and sundry splinters of his al-Qaeda operation to stop planning mayhem.

Virtually every such group, whether in the Mideast, the Horn of Africa, or Asia, is for the most part an entity unto itself, with leaders who may have had an emotional bond to bin Laden for socking it to "the great satan," but little else.

That's not to discount the power of emotions when it comes to motivating terrorists - or anyone else. It would be a lie to say this nation's emotions after 9/11 didn't play an outsize role in the decisions to send soldiers to Afghanistan and to later escalate that war.

Two presidents may have said it was a strategic calculation that kept us in Afghanistan, and not a jones for bin Laden. But in their hearts, most people knew better. Thus the spirited celebrations after the president announced that bin Laden had been killed.

But with bin Laden's death, this nation has an opportunity to take emotionalism and politics out of the equation and make some rational decisions about U.S. strategic interests in South Asia, and how best to achieve them.

That doesn't mean abandoning Afghanistan. But it should mean recognizing that even the leader of that nation has been signaling weariness with the presence of foreign soldiers and a willingness to negotiate with those Taliban leaders who also want peace more than anything else.

Removing emotions about 9/11 from the equation means U.S. policymakers can return to the central question that never stopped being the real key to stability in the region: How do you get India and Pakistan, two countries with nuclear weapons, to set aside their historical antagonism?

Ironically, bin Laden's death has made India even more nervous. Noting bin Laden's being found inside Pakistan, India says the United States has been lax in making sure Pakistan, which receives billions in U.S. aid, hasn't supported other terrorists, including those responsible for the Mumbai and Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks.

For that reason, India doesn't want to see a reduction in U.S. troops in Afghanistan that, in India's estimation, would allow Pakistan to resume its bad, old ways.

That type of regional perspective must guide U.S. steps in Afghanistan. So, it was good to hear the president say in a 60 Minutes interview broadcast Sunday that, after bin Laden's death, "we don't need to have a perpetual footprint of the size that we have now" in Afghanistan.

The president is committed to a reduction in forces, beginning in July. But he hasn't said how many troops will leave Afghanistan, or at what pace. With bin Laden and the emotions attached to him no longer a factor, the best course should become clearer.

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