How Bin Laden's Death Could Help End the Afghan War

The U.S. and Taliban have struggled against domestic political opposition in forging the peace deal both groups know is necessary. With the al-Qaeda leader gone, peace may become much easier to justify


Diners at a Kabul restaurant watch an Afghan local television channel news telecast about Osama Bin Laden's death. Ahmad Masood/Reuters

Osama Bin LadenAfter nearly ten years and the deployment of over a hundred thousand U.S. troops, the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan may have seen its biggest break yet in a different country altogether, with the death of a man who was the purpose of the war's start in 2001 but has come to play at best a marginal role in the fighting between NATO and the Taliban. Osama bin Laden did little to organize al-Qaeda operations in the years before his death on Sunday, and neither he nor his group were especially important to the war over Taliban control of Afghanistan. But all war is politics, and bin Laden's death will have political implications in the U.S. and in Afghanistan that may hasten, perhaps dramatically, the draw-down of a war that has claimed many thousands more lives than al-Qaeda's attacks on August 7, 1998, against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; on September 11, 2001, against the U.S.; and all its other terrorist acts, small and large, since.

President Obama has been looking for a way to peacefully end the war in Afghanistan, to little success, since his December 2009 speech announcing he would send an additional 30,000 troops. His pledge to begin reducing troop levels this summer has already slipped, and the planned 2014 drawdown will likely do the same. U.S.-supervised peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government hit a major setback when the man we believed was high-ranking Taliban official Mullah Mansour turned out to be a fake. Previous Taliban leaders who attempted to negotiate peace have been captured, killed, or intimidated by Pakistani intelligence services, which show every indication of wanting the war to continue indefinitely.

Despite the setbacks, the U.S. under Obama has pressed toward a peace settlement in Afghanistan. It has opened direct peace talks with the Taliban -- an extraordinary step -- implicitly conceding that the Taliban will have a permanent place in legitimate Afghan politics if that is the price of peace. Obama's decision to move General David Petraeus from the lead spot in the U.S.-led Afghan War to the director's office at the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as his choice to move Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta to Secretary of Defense, both imply that the U.S. will be shifting its emphasis from fighting a large-scale war in Afghanistan to the smaller-scale, largely clandestine battle against terrorism.

Though Obama appears determined to end the Afghan War, as of 24 hours ago he still faced two significant obstacles: a U.S. political and cultural dynamic unready to declare an end to hostilities with the Taliban, and a Taliban that may have been ideologically incapable of breaking with al-Qaeda's mandate for endless, existential war against the U.S. and accepting peace. Both sides of the conflict understand the general framework of peace -- government participation for the Taliban, persistent if lower-scale U.S. presence, and breaking the Taliban from al-Qaeda -- but are restrained by their own domestic politics. Bin Laden's death will loosen those restraints and make both the U.S. and Taliban more able to sell their people on peace.

The Taliban may not be a democratic organization, but, like all insurgencies, it is utterly dependent on the active support and participation not just of its fighters but of their communities and the communities of Afghan villages on and off the front lines. That grassroots support is largely incumbent on expelling foreign militaries and reclaiming Islamist governance in Kabul -- issues that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda's global mission -- but the Taliban could not maintain their support if they crossed bin Laden. The al-Qaeda leader has been an inspiring and galvanizing force for Afghan fighters since in the 1980s Soviet invasion, long before the Taliban even existed, and remains a crucial recruiting tool in the ongoing war. But bin Laden would never have accepted peace, which means the Taliban was unable to sell many of its rank-and-file on a negotiated settlement.

Bin Laden's death could "free up" the Taliban's options in Afghanistan, says al-Qaeda expert and former Australian counterterrorism official Leah Farrall. "Bin Laden's profile has been so much higher than anyone else's in al-Qaeda, so with him gone, that organization will continue but it's going to have a bit of strategic uncertainty. And that just gives the Taliban some space. It also gives them some deniability as well." With al-Qaeda's most high-profile leader gone, and the Taliban's closest link to the group severed, the Taliban leadership will have a much easier time claiming whatever ideological guidance from al-Qaeda it wants. "I think the Taliban's very much got the withdrawal date in its sight, and that's what directs their action."

"They're not going to condemn or publicly disassociate themselves from al-Qaeda in a way that challenges al-Qaeda's legitimacy," Farrall says, but "having Bin Laden out of the way does them give them a little bit more room for maneuver." Bin Laden's hard line against the U.S. and against peace made it difficult for the Taliban to justify. "I do think they were fenced in" by bin Laden, "and the one that's always come out about bin Laden, particularly with regards to the Taliban, is that no one could control him."

If Ayman al-Zawahiri, the operational chief and number two official of al-Qaeda, takes over, it will likely weaken the group's ties to the Taliban. "That relationship will probably lack the strength of the one bin Laden had," Farrall said, pointing out that Zawahiri's formerly independent group did not initially recognize Taliban rule of Afghanistan. "He didn't really fight in the war against the Soviets, he was a doctor, he was in the background, he doesn't have that legacy." Zawahiri, never much of a people person, would probably not be able to rally Afghan fighters or sway Taliban leaders the way that his boss could.

The problems facing Obama in trying to sell a peace deal to his people are not so different than those faced by the Taliban. With the 2012 presidential election around the corner, any GOP opponent would almost certainly use a Taliban peace deal against Obama -- recall the 2008 Republican primary infighting over who could appear toughest in demanding no U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. And many American voters would likely be understandably wary of the U.S. allowing the Taliban, an outright enemy of the U.S., to reclaim the Afghan government so many Americans died to deny them. But bin Laden's death gives Obama what George W. Bush tried, but failed, to achieve in 2003 with the removal of Saddam Hussein: a "mission accomplished" moment to justify an end to the war. Bin Laden may not have been operationally significant to the war, but he has been front and center in Americans' psychological understanding of that conflict, and his death allows Obama a greater degree of grace in asking us to accept a distasteful but probably necessary negotiated end to fighting.

Osama bin Laden has served as the justification for many of America's gravest and most costly errors in the ten years since his group's attacks on New York and Washington: the U.S. invasion of Iraq, opening the prison at Guantanamo Bay, waterboarding, warrantless wiretapping, a culture of increased Islamophobia, and the suspension of basic legal rights for Americans and detainees both at home and abroad. By aiding in an Afghan War peace settlement that both the U.S. and the Taliban understand has to happen, bin Laden, in his death, may finally help accomplish something good.