The killing of Osama bin Laden will reshape the Obama administration's ongoing fight against al-Qaida and other terror groups by ridding the United States of its primary battlefield target. But it could have an even bigger impact on public support for the Afghan war itself, as many Americans take bin Laden's death as a sign that the United States has accomplished its mission in Afghanistan and should now begin winding down the unpopular conflict.
Bin Laden has loomed large in the history of modern Afghanistan, which was in many ways the fugitive Saudi national's adopted homeland. Bin Laden made his name raising money and leading Islamist fighters in the bloody effort to defeat the Soviet Union there. More recently, Afghanistan was al-Qaida's operational base in the run-up to the September 11 attacks. U.S. forces invaded the country in the immediate aftermath of the terror strikes, beginning a grinding guerrilla war that has now lasted almost a decade and caused more than 1,560 American battlefield deaths. Last year was the deadliest stretch of the war for American and NATO troops, and 2011--with 160 fatalities so far, including 120 U.S. deaths--is on pace to set a grim new record.
When the Obama administration sent 30,000 reinforcements into Afghanistan last year, the president and his top advisers said the escalation was primarily designed to destroy any al-Qaida remnants in the country and to prevent the armed group from returning to the safe havens it had used there to plan the September 11 attacks. "Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future," Obama told a crowd of cadets at West Point in December 2009 when he announced his plans to deploy the additional American forces.
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Since the American surge troops poured into Afghanistan last summer, the American military has made some gains against the Taliban, the armed group which sheltered al-Qaida in the years before the terror strikes. But despite scattered reports of some low-ranking al-Qaida operatives returning to remote parts of Afghanistan, American military and intelligence officials have long conceded that the primary battlefield in the war against al-Qaida lies in neighboring Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. The administration has sharply escalated its drone campaign in Pakistan, increasing the number of strikes from 35 in 2008, the year before Obama took office, to 117 last year and at least 21 so far this year. In ordering the high-stakes Navy Seal assault on bin Laden's compound in a leafy suburb of Islamabad, meanwhile, Obama has also kept his campaign promise to send American combat troops into Pakistan unilaterally if the U.S. had actionable intelligence about the al-Qaida chieftain's whereabouts.
The White House is getting ready to launch a far-reaching review of the U.S. war effort in coming weeks as part of a broad push to decide how many of the surge troops to bring home by its self-imposed July deadline. As recently as last March, high-ranking military officers told National Journal in interviews that they expected Obama to order a token withdrawal of only a few thousand military personnel, largely support forces and other non-combat troops. But even before bin Laden's death on Sunday, those same officers said their discussions with senior White House aides in recent weeks had convinced them that Obama was leaning toward ordering a far larger withdrawal, possibly as many as two brigades, or roughly 10,000 troops. With bin Laden now out of the picture, the White House may feel even freer to order a larger drawdown than most in the military would prefer.