Bin Laden's death could shift U.S. policy on Pakistan, Afghanistan

Al-Qaida Osama bin Laden in a Dec. 24,

Al-Qaida Osama bin Laden in a Dec. 24, 1998 file photo. (Credit: AP/ABC News )

WASHINGTON - The death of Osama bin Laden stands to reshape U.S. policy in a tumultuous region by strengthening the position of officials in Washington who want to sharply scale down the 10-year-old war in Afghanistan war and placing dangerous new strains on the shaky U.S. partnership with Pakistan.

One day after the bin Laden died in a hail of American gunfire, many argued that the mission showed that the United States is better off by focusing narrowly on striking militant leaders, rather than trying to defend Afghanistan's population with 130,000 troops.

With a top U.S. goal now achieved, they said, President Barack Obama should begin reducing U.S. troop levels, while refocusing the approach to better address a militant threat that has migrated to other countries in the region, such as Yemen and Somalia.

"It becomes a clear alternative to 140,000 pairs of boots on the ground, and 100,000 contractors and billions and billions of unaccounted-for dollars," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif.. "This looks like a much smarter approach."

Meanwhile, members of Congress expressed exasperation that bin Laden was found holed up in a compound only about 30 miles from the capital, Islamabad, in the midst of a Pakistani military complex.

"It is almost impossible to conceive that military and intelligence services in Pakistan did not know about the existence of this unusual compound," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He suggested action against billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Islamabad.

In a telling response, Obama's chief counterterrorism adviser would not defend the Pakistanis.

"I think people are raising a number of questions, and understandably so," said the adviser, John Brennan. "We're going to have to deal with them."

Administration and congressional officials have argued for two years whether to pursue a narrow "counterterrorism" approach in Afghanistan or a more expensive and troop-intensive "counterinsurgency" approach, with the latter winning out so far.

But the current strategy has yielded slow progress at a cost of $2 billion a week, and the public has wearied of the fighting. In response, many officials in the administration and Congress support the alternative approach.

Vice President Joe Biden has argued for the narrower approach in past internal administration debates. Joining him have been Leon Panetta, the incoming Defense secretary, and Thomas Donilon, the national security adviser.

Bin Laden's death "will certainly strengthen the arguments of those who want to shift strategies," said James Lindsay, a National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration who now is research director for the Council on Foreign Relations. Obama, who is still considering how many troops to withdraw this summer, now has "a political opening" to remove a large number of troops, he said.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a House Intelligence Committee member, predicted that the bin Laden killing would change public opinion and "accelerate our shift" to a new strategy. "If our object is to go after high-ranking al-Qaida members, and those people are more present in Pakistan, then that may call for a different strategy," he said.

Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Ark., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that while he is still considering his view on the Afghan strategy, he was impressed by the mission that killed bin Laden.

"You get a better result by using focused forces in a tactical way like this, and you're able to root out bad actors such as Osama bin Laden," Griffin said.

An administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment publicly, said that the administration is committed to keeping large numbers of troops in Afghanistan until at least 2014.

But the official acknowledged that "there are more voices for a change," and said officials are again reviewing the U.S. policy as they weigh the extent of a troop reduction scheduled for July.

The balance of power in the administration has shifted toward those who favor a new approach. Panetta, skeptical of the current strategy, has more leverage as the new defense secretary, while an advocate of existing policies, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, is leaving government. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the architect of the current strategy, is becoming CIA director, where he will have less influence on war policy.

Advocates of the current strategy argue that if the United States withdraws most of its troops, the fragile Afghan government could collapse, opening the way for the Taliban to reassert control and potentially for al-Qaida to return.

"It would be very premature to react in a way that says we can now move more of our people out of there," said Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif.

Republican lawmakers remain mostly committed to the current strategy, although there have been signs of doubt.

"I think this will cause a significant number of people, members of Congress and the general public, to say let's refocus our mission," said Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill., a critic of Afghanistan war policy.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton defended the administration's troop surge policy."We will continue taking the fight to al-Qaida and their Taliban allies, while working to support the Afghan people as they build a stronger government and begin taking responsibility for their own security," Clinton said. "You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us."

Many critics of the Afghan war policy also question U.S. actions in Pakistan, asking why the U.S. has contributed $20 billion in military and civilian aid to Pakistan since 2001, while Islamabad has denied for years that din Laden was even in the country.

White House officials did not attempt to mask their unhappiness that Pakistan had not stopped bin Laden, and congressional officials were outraged that he was found so close to the military.

Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism adviser, said U.S. officials were "talking closely" to the Pakistani government. He said that Pakistanis appeared surprised at bin Laden's presence, but also called it "inconceivable that bin Laden did not have a support system in the country that allowed him to remain there for an extended period of time."

Relations between the two countries have recently been near a low point because of the jailing of a U.S. official who shot two Pakistanis, and perceptions that the United States is striking terrorists on Pakistani soil without official knowledge.

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