The Magazine

Bin Laden Is Dead . . .

But al Qaeda isn’t. We should build on our success in Abbottabad by redoubling our efforts to defeat his movement.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN and KIMBERLY KAGAN
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Osama bin Laden’s killing was a great moment for America and for decent people around the world. But allowing the euphoria of that moment to drive us to irresponsible decisions in South Asia would be devastating to America’s interests and security. Al Qaeda has not yet been dismantled or defeated. 


A NATO oil tanker, destroyed by the Taliban in Pakistan, May 1


Osama bin Laden’s death has no implications for the number of American or international forces in Afghanistan, for their mission, or for the timeline for their reduction. George W. Bush sent forces into Afghanistan not to kill bin Laden, but to oust al Qaeda from its safe haven there, defeat that organization, and create political conditions that would preclude its return to Afghanistan. Barack Obama reaffirmed that mission in his December 2009 speech setting out the current strategy. He chose a counter-insurgency approach because a return of the Taliban regime to Afghanistan would allow al Qaeda to re-establish safe havens there, whether drawing on the historical friendliness between the two or the inability of the Taliban to prevent their return to the country. Furthermore, the protracted, virulent insurgency creates opportunities for al Qaeda-linked Pakistani proxies such as the Haqqani network to invigorate international terrorist groups and use them in the fight in Afghanistan. President Obama has been pursuing the right strategy, and the forces the United States and its international partners have committed to executing it are—just barely—adequate to achieve it.

The outcome of the war in Afghanistan hangs in the balance. American forces and their allies made dramatic gains last year, clearing the Taliban out of safe havens throughout southern Afghanistan, their heartland. Eastern Afghanistan, where al Qaeda-linked groups have a stronger presence, has also seen considerable progress. Contrary to some media reporting, neither al Qaeda nor Lashkar-e-Taiba has established safe havens in the wake of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from isolated river valleys in Kunar Province. In fact, a series of offensive operations in the valleys and the province has inflicted great harm on elements of those organizations. Kunar’s capital, Asad-abad, is a growing and increasingly thriving town, as we saw on a recent visit. And Afghan Army troops have remained in some of the outposts from which U.S. forces withdrew, demonstrating their determination to control their own territory. 

Although al Qaeda has not reestablished sanctuaries in Afghanistan, it has not been for lack of trying. U.S. forces only recently killed a senior Afghan al Qaeda official in Kunar, and there is ample evidence that al Qaeda and Lashkar-e-Taiba, among other Islamist groups, would welcome the opportunity to set themselves up in a lawless Afghanistan once again. The need to help Afghans establish a state that can prevent the reemergence of terrorist sanctuaries remains after bin Laden’s death, and the current strategy, adequately resourced, is the only way to achieve that goal. Calling for accelerating the withdrawal is tantamount to declaring that Afghanistan has become irrelevant with bin Laden’s death and that succeeding there is no longer important for America’s security. 

Consequently, there is a great deal of fighting ahead. Continued military engagements are needed to make precarious improvements enduring and handle other challenges. The enemy will work hard this year to retake its lost sanctuaries in the south, to conduct spectacular attacks in Kabul and elsewhere, and to strengthen its remaining safe havens in the east. Our forces will try to hold and expand security gains in the south and make progress in the east, but conditions are not set for any major reductions in those forces. 

If there is cause for cautious optimism in Afghanistan, there are ample grounds for pessimism on the other fronts in the struggle with militant Islamism. Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan has once again concentrated the minds of Americans on the fact that Pakistan’s leadership has yet to come to consensus about the need to combat and defeat militant Islamist groups within Pakistan’s borders. Nor has the United States developed any real strategy for addressing this challenge. We can hardly expand the campaign of targeted strikes further, particularly after the recent raid deep into Pakistani territory. And the drone campaign will not defeat the virulent terrorist groups it is attacking. Overreacting to suspicions of Pakistani complicity in bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad by suspending all aid or military ties or by taking other drastic actions would make it much harder, not easier, to operate against the terrorists who threaten us. 

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