Officials urge continued effort in Afghanistan following Osama bin Laden killing

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today emerged from the State Department to say that Osama bin Laden’s death should spur the United States to make more progress in Afghanistan, and will bolster the populist movement that has toppled dictators in Egypt and Tunisia.

The theme was hammered home by John Brennan, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for homeland security and counter-terrorism. “By decapitating the head of the snake,” the attack was a defining moment in the campaign against Al Qaeda, he said at the May 2 White House press conference. “We feel this is a very important time to continue… [and] to break the back of Al Qaeda,” he said. A key task, he said, is persuading Pakistanis that “Al Qaeda is now something in the past, not the future.”

The quick reaction will help Brennan, Clinton and their allies fend off calls from some liberals and conservatives for a reduced U.S. role in Afghanistan and other Muslim countries. The administration is slated to decide in June how many troops should be withdrawn from Afghanistan during the summer.

“Continued [international] cooperation will be just as important in the days ahead [because] the battle to stop al Qaeda and its syndicate of terror will not end with the death of bin Laden,” Clinton declared. “We must take the opportunity to redouble our efforts … we will continue to take the fight to al Qaeda and its Taliban allies,” she said.

Throughout the Middle East, people are rejecting the “extremist narrative” of bin Laden, she said. “There is no better rebuke to al Qaeda and its heinous ideology” than the protests, she said.

Other advocates for continued military involvement also jumped into the emerging debate. Bin Laden’s killing was “the most significant achievement to date in our fight against al Qaeda and terrorism … However, we as a nation must understand that this is not the end of al Qaeda or terrorist efforts against the United States and her citizens,” according to a statement from New Jersey Democratic Rep. Steve Rothman.

The pending decision on troop levels in Afghanistan was set by President Barack Obama during his fall 2009 review of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. His decision, announced December 2009, was to dispatch another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan, but also to begin withdrawing an unspecified number of troops beginning July 2011.

The most prominent opponent of the buildup was Vice President Joe Biden.

Watch Secretary Clinton’s remarks:

The Afghan decision will be considered while U.S. officials look at whether to keep a small number of U.S. combat forces in Iraq. Several politicians in Iraq have suggested they would support a continued U.S. troop presence that would help keep the neighboring Islamic government of Iran at bay. But other Iraqi politicians, including those with close ties to the Iranian theocracy, say a continued U.S. presence will inspire continued attacks on U.S. troops.

Many liberal groups want the U.S. role in Afghanistan reduced, partly to free up money for domestic spending, but also to extract the Democratic Party from painful war-related decisions. These decisions include rules for the treatment of captured terrorists, and for the monitoring of possible jihadis in the United States. These groups, including Code Pink, and legislators such as Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, have won some support from-right-of-center advocates and writers, including columnist George Will, who wrote in September 2009 that Afghan leaders are incapable of establishing a modern government.

These groups argue that public support for the Afghan operation is declining. A Gallup poll in March showed that 42 percent of Americans believe that sending U.S. troops to Afghanistan was a mistake. That’s up from 6 percent in 2002, 25 percent in 2004 and 36 percent in 2009.

Other political groups, including some progressives as well as foreign-policy hawks, argue that the killing of bin Laden will help the U.S. work with the Afghan government to fight the Taliban in Afghanistan.

This group points to regrowing confidence among Americans about the Afghan operation. A poll taken in March and April by the Pew Research Center shows that the percentage of Americans who think the Afghan operation is going very well or fairly well is 50 percent, up from 45 percent in January 2009.

The discovery of bin Laden’s hideout deep in Pakistan may also be used to pressure the Pakistan government to reduce its semi-secret support for some groups working with the Taliban. The Pakistan government provides support to the Taliban groups because it wants great influence over the Afghan government. The Pakistani government and military regard India as their main national-security threat, but fear jihadis, drug-smugglers, disorder and Indian influence in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials worry that Pakistan could create far more dangers, especially if its store of nuclear weapons was seized by jihadi revolutionaries. Pakistani-based jihadis have frequently attacked Hindus in India, modernizers in Pakistan, government officials in Afghanistan, as well as civilian targets in the United States and the United Kingdom, and threaten to seize the government of the country, 97 percent of whose population is Muslim.