Obama Did Not Need To Fly To Kabul To Announce New Afghanistan Policy – This Was A Cheap Publicity Stunt – Osama’s Death Changed Little In This Conflict

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By Paolo von Schirach

May 2, 2012

WASHINGTON – The connection between the killing of Osama bin Laden and the conflict in Afghanistan today exists only in the mind of Obama’s pollsters hoping to score something here at home on the almost forgotten notion that “9/11 started there and Obama brought it to a close”. Of course, there was a strong connection between bin Laden and Afghanistan in 2001. But even before his killing last year there was hardly any. Therefore Obama’s choice of the one year anniversary of the May 1, 2011 raid and killing of bin Laden to announce the new way forward in this never ending Afghan war is pure politics. And flying all the way to Kabul, landing there in the middle of the night to make this announcement, is just political theatre –and not even that good theatre.

Political theatre

There is nothing surprising, of course, when politicians try to get attention, especially a few months before a crucial presidential election. But this is a bit much. This was not a state visit. This was just a publicity stunt to get a few photo-ops. It is ludicrous to affirm that Obama really needed to go in person to Kabul to sign a bilateral agreement with president Karzai regarding the calendar for American troops withdrawals and other arrangements regarding a US residual presence after 2014.

This was all cheap political theatre. And I am not so sure that it worked as intended. The American public, already tired of this never ending conflict, did not pay much attention.

The beginning of the war

But let’s look at the real context. This war in Afghanistan, (a war that Obama “found” but then intensified), is a total misallocation of precious American resources. The bill is now about $ 6 billion a month. From the very beginning, our objective was and should have been combating terrorism, and not getting involved in the remaking of Afghanistan, an extremely poor and backward country.

As we all recall, it started all the way back in 2001, after 9/11, because al Qaeda was there, and because the then Taliban government was acting as willing host to Osama bin Laden and his followers. The US objective was to punish those who had attacked us and to destroy al Qaeda’s bases and training camps in Afghanistan in order to prevent future terror operations against the US.

No significant al Qaeda presence

If we fast forward to last year, even before the raid and killing of bin Laden (in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan) on May 1, 2011, there was no significant al Qaeda presence left in Afghanistan. True enough, the Taliban insurrection had regained strength and, if unopposed, it threatened to destabilize and topple the weak Karzai government. And this was and is a problem. But it is not the same problem we faced in 2001.

The current Taliban insurgency is not an al Qaeda insurrection. Some Taliban are Islamic radicals and some are al Qaeda’s friends. But this is not the core of the insurrection. So much so that the US and the Karzai government are trying to negotiate an end to the hostilities with at least some Taliban leaders. You do not negotiate with mortal enemies who are seeking your destruction.

US killed a diminished bin Laden

Besides, let’s take into account that, at that time, well before the killing of bin Laden, thanks to US actions al Qaeda had suffered a number of losses that amounted to reduced prestige, diminished operational capabilities and ultimately less appeal. Several years after 9/11 Osama’s best days were well behind him and the militant terror group he had inspired and led. He was no longer the strong prophet of the inevitable New Caliphate. He was a fugitive hiding in Pakistan. No doubt he was helped by many, as his living arrangements in Pakistan indicate. But he was no longer the leader of strong, New Islamic Movement.

And then last year finally the US Government caught up with him. A combination of good intelligence and a well executed special operation killed bin Laden. This was appropriate and well done. But let’s remember that the person killed was a diminished leader of a semi-spent force. I am not suggesting that al Qaeda last year, at the time of bin Laden’s killing , was finished. I am suggesting that it had lost momentum. Can it still mount dangerous terror operations? Absolutely. After all it takes only a few determined people to cause a lot of damage, as 9/11 demonstrated. But it is no longer the winning horse.

Killing of bin Laden: tactical victory

Therefore, if we take all this in context, the killing of bin Laden, as justified as it was, was a tactical victory in what had become a secondary conflict. And most importantly this killing was an event with marginal (if any) consequences on the war in Afghanistan, a conflict that continues for reasons that today have little to do with al Qaeda’s grandiose plans.

Terrorism important, but not the main threat

Even when bin Laden was still around the idea that the US was and is engaged in this planetary war with al Qaeda in which our very survival as a society is at stake, was totally preposterous. And it is equally preposterous to assert that today almost 100,000 troops are in Afghanistan to protect the US homeland from terrorist attacks mounted by al Qaeda and friends from there. There is no meaningful al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. They may be in Yemen, or Somalia and now possibly in Nigeria; but not much is left in Afghanistan.

A major counterinsurgency effort was the wrong choice

Given all this, President Obama made the wrong choice in increasing US military presence in Afghanistan in 2010. A smaller, highly specialized force aimed at preventing the possible re-establishment of terror bases in the country would have been appropriate . Now, after the inconclusive and expensive ($ 6 billion a month) counter insurgency that he ordered, Obama is trying to exit as quickly as possible from a country that is hardly better off because of his initiative to send in more troops.

No real connection between Afghan operations and Osama’s killing last year

That said, the attempt to connect the exit from this war to the killing of bin Laden a year ago via a presidential trip to Kabul is just cheap politics, a way to get some cheers from the gallery at home. As I said, the connection is flimsy at best.

For sure, getting bin Laden 10 years ago, when the 9/11 memories were very fresh and Osama was at the top of his game, would have been a real coup. But getting a fugitive in command of very little in May 2011 was not such a big deal.

Photo-op in Kabul

And, one year later, a trip to Kabul conceived around this anniversary just to brag about this relatively minor accomplishment that really did not alter the course of the conflict in Afghanistan, just to score political points at home because of the upcoming elections, diminishes the office of the presidency and makes President Obama look like an attention seeking small man who does not have that much to brag about.

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