- By Gayle Tzemach LemmonGayle Tzemach Lemmon is fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Dressmaker of Khair Khana.
In Afghanistan Western officials expressed relief at word ofOsama bin Laden’s death — and concern that Sunday night’s news would turn upthe considerable pressure they already feel to convince the American public tostay the course in Afghanistan now that the man who led America to invade thecountry is dead. The most pressing question is, how does bin Laden’s deathmatter for the war in Afghanistanand the ‘war on terror’? And will it change the way Americans view the country’slongest-ever war?
On Monday morning Gen. David Petraeus and his staff atNATO’s headquarters delayed their morning meeting to watch the news stream inon BBC and Al Jazeera while the press operation at the U.S. Embassy translatedthe President’s statements into Dari and Pashto. Afghan President Hamid Karzaiwent on Afghan TV to urge the Taliban to learn from the bin Laden killing, adevelopment he called "important news," and lay down their arms.
While Americans poured into the street in jubilation inWashington and New York, those prosecuting the war in Afghanistan say that theydo not want to take their focus off the difficult spring fighting season aheadof them. They are waiting to see whether Congress will see bin Laden’s death asvindication that the current strategy is working — or reason to declarevictory and send American troops home as quickly as possible.
The American public is increasingly ready to reversedirection when it comes to Afghanistan policy. In the most recent ABCNews/Washington Post pollingnearly two-thirds of the public said the war was no longer worth fighting.
"This is a resilient network and he was only one part," saidone senior Western official, who expressed worry that the public would seeOsama bin Laden’s death as reason to end the increasingly unpopular war soonerrather than later. U.S. troops are scheduled to begin withdrawing from the countryin July 2011, though numbers and details have yet to be determined. "Theproblem is that there is a misperception that these two things (bin Laden’sdeath and the war in Afghanistan) are related. They are interrelated as part ofa broader war on terror but at the same time the objective here was to makesure this was no longer a safe haven, and that requires a comprehensivecounterinsurgency effort of which this was only one part."
The push to reassure Afghans that bin Laden’s killing doesnot mean an end to America’s commitment to their country has already begun.
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry released a statement Monday pledgingthat "this victory will not mark the end of our effort against terrorism" andvowing that "America’sstrong support for the people of Afghanistan will continue asbefore."
But it is not clear that Americans agree. Coming weeks willtell whether they will be willing to see the war through now that bin Laden, alQaeda’s most visible symbol, is dead. Can American leaders prove that it isworth continuing the fight to make certain Afghanistan provides no sanctuary to al Qaeda leaders like him? Or will the end of the bin Laden hunt mark thelast of a restless public’s patience with the war effort?
President Barack Obama’s administration has struggled fromthe beginning to explain the rationale behind the Afghanistan war. They nowface the task of convincing the public that the killing of al Qaeda’s figureheaddoes not mean the fight is finished, only that it has moved into a next phase.The war against terrorism is far larger than any one leader. And it is a battlein which the phrase "Mission Accomplished" may never be heard.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon isa Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of TheDressmaker of Khair Khana.