Bin Laden and the Afghan Endgame

ISLAMABAD – Osama bin Laden’s death in a firefight with United States special forces will profoundly affect Pakistan’s relations with America. The death of Al Qaeda’s leader deep in Pakistan, in a city with a heavy military presence, appears to confirm what many have long alleged: Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has become the epicenter of international terrorism.

How will Bin Laden’s death affect terrorist groups operating not only in Pakistan, but also in other Muslim countries around the world? What impact will it have on America’s involvement in Afghanistan? Some tentative answers to these questions are now possible.

The US went into Afghanistan in October 2001 to oust the Taliban regime, which had provided Bin Laden and Al Qaeda with a sanctuary and operational base. The US has now stayed on for almost ten years, fighting an insurgency concentrated among Afghanistan’s Pakhtun population. The Pakhtuns, who constitute about half of Afghanistan’s population, believe that the US invasion meant a loss of power to their ethnic rivals, the Tajiks and Uzbeks. The Pakhtun-led insurgency aims at expelling foreign troops and restoring Pakhtun dominance.

With Bin Laden’s death, the US could argue that the mission begun almost ten years ago has been accomplished. Troops could begin to be brought home, in line with the promise made by President Barack Obama when he announced his Afghan strategy at West Point on December 1, 2009. But is the mission really accomplished?