Renewed calls to end US Afghan mission

Cost of Afghan war and the killing of Osama bin Laden rraise calls for early withdrawl of US troops from Afghanistan.

US Army flight medic SPC Daniel Miller, right, stands guard as a wounded colleague is placed in a medevac helicopter at a "hot" landing zone in Sangin, in the volatile Helmand Province of southern Afghanistan, on Friday.
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WASHINGTON // With the killing of Osama bin Laden, the Obama administration is facing renewed questions about its Afghanistan policy. Americans are increasingly weary of the war, and some lawmakers, worried about the cost, are now looking at the removal of bin Laden as a chance to enact a speedier troop reduction.

Analysts, however, say a significant change of policy is unlikely, not least because while the US went into Afghanistan to pursue al Qa'eda and its leadership as well as remove the Taliban government that sheltered them, the aims of war have shifted over the years. The US wants to leave a strong Afghan government that will not serve as a haven for al Qa'eda or similar groups in the future.

But the counterinsurgency that the US administration launched in 2009 has yet to yield that result.

There are concerns in Washington over stability in the region generally. Pakistan is a nuclear power with enormous socio-economic and humanitarian problems and a home-grown insurgency of its own that seems to be gathering strength, in part because of the US presence in Afghanistan. On Thursday, 80 Pakistani paramilitary soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing at a base near the Afghan frontier.

"Our interests in the region are just that, they are regional," said Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar in residence with the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based think tank. "By laying it on Osama bin Laden and al Qa'eda, we made it seem as if there was a short cut out of there. But, having gotten in, now we have the [issue of the] stability of the region, the most dangerous, by far, in the world."

Nevertheless, nearly 60 per cent of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, think it is time for the US to end a war that has lasted nearly a decade. And they are joined in this by a cross-section of US legislators in Congress, many of whom are concerned at the cost of war, estimated at US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) a month, at a time of tough economic circumstances at home.

Prominent among those questioning the current strategy is John Kerry, head of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee. On Tuesday, Mr Kerry said during Senate hearing that bin Laden's death was a "potentially game-changing opportunity" that could bring about a political solution to increase stability in the region and "bring our troops home".

"Make no mistake, it is unsustainable to continue spending $10 billion a month on a massive military operation with no end in sight," Mr Kerry, a Democrat, said.

The ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, echoed that sentiment. "With al Qa'eda largely displaced from the country but franchised in other locations, Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 US troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal restraints," he said

Those are powerful sentiments in the US, where the flagging economic recovery continues to be the top concern for voters wearying of America's military deployments abroad.

The removal of bin Laden will augment those who argue that al Qa'eda is no longer a threat to the US and that there is no reason for the US to stay in Afghanistan.

"Those voices are obviously going to be strengthened now and they are already quite vocal," said Mr Weinbaum, who served as an Afghanistan and Pakistan analyst at the Bureau of Intelligence Research at the US State Department between 1999 and 2003.

The question for Barack Obama, the US president, now is whether he will make the "prudential choice" and stay the course, Mr Weinbaum said, or yield to public opinion and accelerate a process of withdrawal.

So far, the signs are that the administration will continue with its plan for a limited withdrawal of some troops this summer with a view to a more comprehensive withdrawal by 2014. The White House appears to have decided to limit the expansion of the Afghan army over the next 18 months, largely for reasons of costs, according to some US media reports, in a sign that any US withdrawal this year will be restricted.

The US military will be loath to abandon what modest security gains it has made in Afghanistan at a time when the counterinsurgency is just beginning to have an effect, said Nathan Hughes, director of military studies at Stratfor, a Texas-based global intelligence company.

"Pulling up stakes and leaving the country is a pretty risky strategy for the US ... There's a big question of just how big those [security] gains are or are not, but [the military] certainly doesn't want to take these hard-won gains and then pull up stakes and see them reversed."Moreover, said Mr Hughes, while the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and US military operations in Pakistan have contributed to the instability there, leaving Afghanistan would only exacerbate that tension.

"The long-term US interest in the region is a strong Pakistan that is capable of controlling its own territory, its own nuclear arsenal and, to be quite honest, serving a balance of power scenario with India."

A full withdrawal is not in the cards in any case, said Mr Weinbaum. Those arguing for a greater reduction in US troops are really arguing for a counter-terrorism approach instead of the present counterinsurgency. That could be a dangerous mistake, he warned.

"I think the [current] strategy is good but the timing is lousy. We waited too long. I don't know what we are going to accomplish [by 2014]. But I do know that if we fail, it's going to be quite disastrous."