Peter Bergen is a contributing editor for The New Republic and the author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America and Al-Qaeda.
The death of Osama bin Laden will raise the inevitable question: What are we still doing in Afghanistan? The answer, of course, is that the mission in Afghanistan is about something bigger and more ambitious than eliminating al-Qaida's leaders — most of whom, in any event, are probably living in Pakistan, as bin Laden was when the United States finally tracked him down. No, the mission in Afghanistan isn't about killing al-Qaida members. It's about stabilizing the country so that it can never again serve as the hotbed of extremism that it was until 2001, with all of the attendant national security and human rights problems that resulted.
But that in turn raises other questions: Is it worth prolonging a war that has stretched on for nearly 10 years for that broader goal? And perhaps the most difficult question of all: Even if that goal is worth fighting for, is it actually achievable?
Over the past few years, a consensus has formed in Washington that the answer to that last question is a resounding no. For years, war in Afghanistan has been portrayed as a hopeless failure. The government in Kabul, we have been told, is corrupt and predatory. The Afghan army is a mess. Tribal loyalties trump national loyalties. The Taliban is gaining in strength.
All of this rendered a decision made by President Obama last autumn rather odd — at least on the surface. Obama had long promised that American troops would begin leaving Afghanistan in the summer of 2011. As Vice President Joe Biden had explained: "In July 2011, you're going to see a whole lot of people moving out. Bet on it." But then, over the course of a week in November, the White House announced a major reversal of course: A large-scale troop presence would remain in Afghanistan for an additional three years, until 2014.
Only a handful of journalists seemed to realize the magnitude of the news. For its part, The New York Times characterized the new approach as "a change in tone," a curious label for several more years of war.
But while Americans barely seemed to notice, people in Kabul certainly did. In December, a few weeks after Obama's announcement, I met with Hedayat Amin Arsala, a courtly senior minister in the Afghan government and a confidant of President Hamid Karzai. We were seated in a basketball-court-sized office adorned with a massive chandelier in a nineteenth-century building in central Kabul. Arsala had been dismayed by Obama's initial plan to begin withdrawing in 2011. "I was not very happy with it," Arsala recalled, choosing his words carefully. "It gave the impression to the opposition that if they stick to their guns a little longer, they might be able to succeed after that." Arsala, reflecting the views of many Afghans both inside and outside the government, expressed relief that Obama was now reversing himself. In fact, he hoped the American president would go even further, and hammer out a long-term agreement with Afghanistan so that American troops could remain in the country into 2015 and beyond. "Between now and 2014, we will be working on this together with the United States," he told me. A range of other American and Afghan officials confirmed that such an agreement is currently being worked on.
Then came this month's killing of Osama bin Laden — and while Americans rejoiced, many Afghans were, according to the Times, worried that the successful operation would hasten the departure of American troops. "This should not be used as a justification for premature withdrawal," warned one former Afghan official.
What is going on here? First, Obama had concluded that a war which was widely believed to be failing was in fact still worth prosecuting. Then, Afghans had made it known that they were relieved the United States would be sticking around. Now, in the wake of bin Laden's death, they were reminding the United States that they expected it not to renege on this promise. Is this a case of a stubborn American president — unwilling to admit defeat, egged on by Afghan allies — doubling down on a completely failed enterprise? Or is it possible that the Afghanistan war is actually succeeding?