Afternoon InquisitionSkepticism

Death of bin Laden and Possible Strategic Shift in Washington

If you can wade through all the conspiracy theories and denialist rhetoric that has come to the fore since President Barack Obama’s announcement late May 1 that Osama bin Laden had been killed, you’ll find a host of intriguing geo-political implications waiting to be examined in a critical light.

The news outlets and blogosphere have flowered with articles proposing that bin Laden’s dispatch is a fortunate and perhaps coincidental part of a huge American plan to swiftly depart the region, and has therefore led to what some fear could be the current U.S. administration’s “mission accomplished” moment.

From the global intelligence site, STRATFOR:

The U.S. mission in Afghanistan, as stated by Obama, is the destruction of al Qaeda — in particular, of the apex leadership that once proved capable of carrying out transnational, high-casualty attacks. Although al Qaeda had already been severely weakened in Afghanistan and has recently focused more on surviving inside Pakistan than executing meaningful operations, the inability to capture or kill bin Laden meant that the U.S. mission itself had not been completed. With the death of bin Laden, a plausible, if not altogether accurate, political narrative in the United States can develop, claiming that the mission in Afghanistan has been accomplished. During a White House press conference on Monday, U.S. Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan commented on bin Laden’s death, saying “We are going to try to take advantage of this to demonstrate to people in the area that al Qaeda is a thing of the past, and we are hoping to bury the rest of al Qaeda along with Osama bin Laden.”

STRATFOR and other sources have also speculated (register required) that Obama’s April 28 announcement that Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, will replace Leon Panetta as CIA director was the main chess move by the President to begin shaping an exit strategy, and that killing bin Laden has coincidentally added to the drama in a positive way for the administration.

If you’ve ever read Bob Woodward’s book “Obama’s Wars”, and gotten a glimpse of the relationship between the Golden General (Petraeus) and the President, you can see how this move might actually make sense. Patreaus is the face of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and he has phenomenal influence in maintaining the status quo. So, Obama has strategically appointed him as the CIA director to get him bogged down in the bureaucracy of the intelligence world so he can freely change the political climate in the region to set up a withdrawal. Whether very dumb or very smart, the President seems to be checking off items on a list for major movements in the coming year and the death of bin Laden could be viewed as the keystone item on his list.

So Petraeus is being removed from the picture in Afghanistan. Bin Laden has already been removed, and one might argue that, while there may be room for some manner of special-operations counterterrorism forces, the need for additional U.S. troops in Afghanistan no longer exists. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that bin Laden was killed, not in Afghanistan, but deep within Pakistani borders. And if we allow that the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan is dissipating, the nation-building mission in Afghanistan becomes unnecessary and nonessential.

Plus, as STRATFOR observes:

. . . with tensions in the Persian Gulf building in the lead-up to the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, ending the war in Afghanistan critically releases U.S. forces for operations elsewhere. It is therefore possible for the United States to consider an accelerated withdrawal in a way that wasn’t possible before.

Very intriguing stuff. But what do you think?

Are bin Laden’s death and Petraeus’ new appointment merely coincidental? Do the confluence of the two events create politically strategic opportunities for the U.S. administration that did not exist before? Is there now a stronger possibility for a dramatic shift in U.S. strategy in Afghanistan? What other factors could help or hinder an exit from the region?

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. “… the nation-building mission in Afghanistan becomes unnecessary and nonessential.”

    That’s too bad because it was really the only worthwhile mission. Though I’m unwilling to sacrifice my friends and neighbors for it.

    When I heard the news Sunday my second thought (after ‘Bam!’) was how this would affect our role in Afghanistan. It is definitely going to increase the calls for a pull-out. Will it affect the day-to-day operations on the ground? I don’t know, we’ll have to wait and see.

    Interestingly I believe there is a correlation between the new appointments and the raid but not in the way you might think. The changes had to be made before the raid because, regardless of success or failure, making the changes afterwards would automatically have made them a response to the success, or failure.


    1. Interesting.

      That thought occurred to me as well, though I would say peripherally, because my contemplation has been mostly from a post-mission standpoint. Thanks for bringing it back into focus.

  2. If there was ever a fools errand doomed to failure it would be nation building in Afghanistan. I think history bears this out and I’d rather not see any more lives or treasure spent on the effort.

    1. That’s pretty callous. I think we’ve done a terrible job nation building and I’d much rather see us pull out than continue down the path we are treading. I am however happy to support real nation building for the people of Afghanistan (as in free and fair elections, human rights and basic essentials). To say that helping these people is a fools errand and that you don’t want any money spent on it is horrible. Do they just not deserve human rights because they are Islamic? I give to Care Australia, a secular charity that is supporting rebuilding, education, healthcare, food distribution, women’s advocacy and microcredit in Afghanistan. I think they have the right approach, I think a community driven approach is the right way to build a nation.

      I’m sorry for the long and disjointed reply I’m just absolutely horrified at what you have written. I hope you don’t mean it and that was just anti-war hyperbole, I really do.

      1. The US is pumping billions into the country with very little benefit. And I’m not talking about millions going toward supporting democratic reforms and providing tangible aid and education for the populace, which will go on no matter what. It’s the BILLIONS and the BODIES I really object to. If an investment is not providing reasonable returns it’s time to stop investing. That is not a horrible position, it’s a reasonable and rational one.

        1. I still do not know what your position is:

          Firstly you seem to be still defending your remarks that there is something about the people of Afghanistan that makes nation building there a fools errand and unworthy of effort and money. How do you justify millions not billions? I’m guessing you would not object to billions being spent on aid to Japan.

          What do you think nation building is? “democratic reforms and providing tangible aid and education for the populace” is a pretty good definition (at least if you add in the infrastructure to continue these things without foreign aid).

          “which will go on no matter what” “If an investment is not providing reasonable returns it’s time to stop investing” So you’re happy for other people to pay to help the poor in Afghanistan just not you and just as long as they don’t send enough money to actually fix the problems there?

          It is not reasonable and rational to claim that any people in the world do not deserve democracy and freedom. It is not reasonable and rational to put an arbitrary limit on aid especially when that limit is designed purely so that you can argue against the position your country has taken, surely you can see the logical fallacy there. It is not reasonable and rational to claim that our soldiers should not fight for the freedom of foreigners, they are human beings too. I do not know if you actually hold any of these positions, according to the text you have written you do but I feel like I’m reading the talking points of a politician or just standard anti-war boilerplate. Like you’ve copied and pasted opinions without thinking about what they mean.

          1. I don’t think you and Jacob mean the same thing when you use the term “nation building”. The Republicans co-opted the term to denote what they claimed was Clinton’s attempt to impose democracy on various 3rd world countries at the barrel of a gun. (This wasn’t the Clinton policy, but that didn’t matter.) The Republicans wanted to return to the previous cold-war policy of propping up any tin-pot dictator who would play ball with us. I think Jacob has bought into this definition, which is where the billions applies. On the other hand, real nation building (education, infrastructure, gentle pressure towards democratic reforms) is the millions, which I think Jacob is saying will continue. (Though I think in grossly inadequate amounts.)

          2. @Buzz Parsec
            I see what you are saying and I had thought it possible that was his position when I posted but I don’t think it is right to impute to anyone a different argument than the one they put forward. It’s not fair to put an interpretation on his words, to try and argue that he actually meant something he did not say. If he means it he can say it. Some people really do believe that people from the middle east just can’t handle democracy and freedom.

          3. Thanks Buzz, but it’s not so much that I’ve bought into the republican definition as much as I’m objecting to what we’re doing currently in Afghanistan that is considered nation building. Certainly lasting change is only achieved through education, fundamental economic changes, abandoning iron age religions etc. . Military interventions like the one currently taking place are very unlikely to be successful and that is what is costing billions and wasting lives. And the comparison to Japan is a straw man of exemplary quality and uselessness.

          4. Listen, you are really beginning to piss me off. If you are against military interventions in Afghanistan say that. Nation building is a different thing, if you did not understand that you should by now. Also if you think we are doing a bad job nation building say that. You are now arguing that you support nation building while still defending your initial comments that you do not support nation building. Your argument is incoherent.
            You’ve also added this bizarre millions not billions argument that makes no sense. The point of the Japan analogy is that it makes no sense to argue against the amount of aid, it will cost what it costs and it will no doubt cost billions of dollars. I was hoping that by pointing to a less politicised tragedy that you could see that setting an arbitrary limit on aid was stupid. Apparently not, ask yourself why you don’t set a millions not billions limit on Japan and why you do on Afghanistan.
            Lastly this is tangential to the debate but you don’t seem to understand what a straw man argument is. If I had claimed that you were against funding billions in aid to Japan that would be a straw man argument as it is not a position you claim to hold. What I have made is an argument from analogy, the devastation to the people and work needed to be done in both countries is similar but Japan is apolitical. An argument from analogy is a way to get you to think differently about a problem but is not always logically compelling because by definition the things you are making an analogy about are different. It would have been a straw man argument only if you hold that there should be millions and not billions in aid to Japan (I do not believe you hold this position but am not sure which is why I qualified the statement).
            Let’s make it simple, my position has been clearly stated from the start and has not changed, how about you clearly state your position:
            Are you against nation building in Afghanistan if so why and what do you expect the people of Afghanistan to do?
            How do you justify your limit on aid in Afghanistan (why millions not billions)?
            (sorry for the dots but this site has been eating my formatting)

          5. To think limits on aid should not be set and appreciated is fundamentally naive. There is no bottomless pit of money to spend on any and all social ills around the world. In the specific case of Afghanistan there is no indication from history or current events that the current military involvement will have any substantive impact on the country with regard to nation building. So if you want a statement of my position it would be that aid provided through American and international organizations that promote justice, liberty, equality and economic independence should continue as they do in many other countries. Direct aid should be provided in times of significant hardship and to help peoples meet their own basic needs. And diplomatic efforts should be ongoing to encourage democratic reforms as is also the case with many other countries. So suffice it to say that I object to the current efforts at nation/state building in Afghanistan because it’s not likely to be successful, people are dying unnecessarily and it costs too damn much. I don’t know how to be more specific given I never said ongoing aid should be stopped, and given there is no set or agreed upon definition of nation building let’s use the one wiki provides; and I’ll allow that perhaps what I object to may be more accurately referred to as state building but is commonly referred to as nation building.

            “The confusion over terminology has meant that more recently, nation-building has come to be used in a completely different context, with reference to what has been succinctly described by its proponents as “the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to underpin an enduring transition to democracy.” In this sense nation-building, better referred to as state building, describes deliberate efforts by a foreign power to construct or install the institutions of a national government, according to a model that may be more familiar to the foreign power but is often considered foreign and even destabilising. In this sense, state-building is typically characterised by massive investment, military occupation, transitional government, and the use of propaganda to communicate governmental policy.”

            And as to my assertion that your mentioning of aid to Japan was a straw man, I suppose ‘false analogy’ could be a more accurate description.

          6. A couple of things, I don’t want to be too negative because I can see now that you are not trying to make a racist argument.
            I wasn’t saying that we have unlimited aid, what I said is that you can’t set an arbitrary limit and then argue that violating that limit is wrong. If you want to argue for a specific limit you have to give reasons for that limit.
            Wikipedia does recognise the more widely understood definition of nation building: “unification of the people within the state so that it remains politically stable and viable in the long run. Nation-building can involve the use of propaganda or major infrastructure development to foster social harmony and economic growth.” (it’s at the top of the page, you had to scroll past it) It’s this “nice” definition that is the reason the term was adopted for what we are actually doing in Afghanistan.
            Lastly please stop using the names of logical fallacies. Try explaining how the argument violates logic, if nothing else it will help you understand the fallacies. “False Analogy” is not a formal fallacy because there is no mistake in the logic of the argument. What that means is that you can’t simply say “that’s a false analogy” like you could say “you’ve affirmed the consequent” (If A then B, B therefore A) you actually need to show how the argument is incorrect. If you want to try the argument simplified is: It will cost billions to build infrastructure in both Japan and Afghanistan, people will suffer should we limit aid to millions in either place. Both peoples should have enough international aid that they are able to reach a minimum standard of quality of life. Therefore both should receive billions of dollars in aid. Remember that I had already claimed that the war was not helping and that I thought community based aid programs (“supporting rebuilding, education, healthcare, food distribution, women’s advocacy and microcredit in Afghanistan”) were where funding should go before you made the comment that money spent on Afghanistan should be millions and not billions. Also that both are currently receiving billions of dollars in aid i.e. the money is available (although in Afghanistan little is being spent in a way that will benefit the populace).

  3. The Soviet-backed regime was having a certain amount of success in building a nation, but the US didn’t like the sort of nation so they helped tear it down.

  4. I doubt Obama would move Petraeus to a position that would put him on the National Security Council a significant amount of the time to silence him. He’ll have Obama’s ear more of the time now. If he wanted to do that he would have declined to give him a new assignment which would result in automatic retirement.

  5. With this country in economic decline it is time for the president to find reasons to get out of these countries. Bin Laden is gone, we have made the world safer despite the continous trite of anything always possible from “terrorism experts”. President has the authority to make the decision and he should use it. How much longer do we remain and pour money into countries that care little for real change. Pull all of our forces defend our borders and prepare for the next enemy.

  6. While I certainly would agree that it’s time for the US, (and everyone else, for that matter) to get their asses out of Afghanistan, with regards to pulling in your forces, what, exactly, do you think that you have to defend against? What military power can come close to threating US military superiority? I don`t think that the rest of the world`s military combined could threaten US military superiority.
    The only adversaries that the US has right now are economic ones. China, for example. All that they would have to do is to call in their marker – I picture a mob-boss kind of conversation ;) – and the US is in complete economic ruin. The world as you guys know it grinds to a halt. Of course, that probably goes for those of us that rely on the US for our exports, like Canada.
    When that time comes (and notice I didn`t say if) All that the US will have in it’s favor is it’s military might. And what does one do with a military? Conquer.
    So, if the goal of the US is to conquer the world, then you guys are certainly on the right path. Because in the end, I think that military conquest is the only way you’re going to be able to dig yourselves out of the hole you’re in. And then we’ll all be American.
    [insert fictional deity here] help us all.

  7. I am very critical of any war waged on the basis of instilling an ideology as complex and foreign as “democracy” (or any idea at all, for that mater). In the same way that we cannot hope to encourage skeptical thinking by railing on about how crap homeopaths are and how much of a bellend that Deepak Chopra is, we cannot force-feed democracy to people, either.

    But what is done is done. We are there now and now, we must honestly consider the damage that we risk causing by leaving. We have established a presence there and simply leaving may be akin to pulling an arrow out of somebody’s chest (it shouldn’t be there in the first place, but tearing it out is quite often a very destructive method of treatment).

    The death of Bin Laden confuses things even more. Will his predecessor be more violent and trigger-happy? Will he be a better tactician? Will he be more active in the Western World? Do we stand to further antagonize the Middle East through seemingly simple and harmless courses of action? All of these are questions that, at this stage, are difficult to answer (and there are, without a doubt, many more).

    I am far from sorry that Bin Laden is dead and I don’t begrudge anybody a good bit of grave dancing but I would say that his death has certainly kicked up some mud in already muddy waters. We are put in a situation where we must be both cautious and swift and being that the two things are almost impossible to accomplish at the same time, I am quite uneasy about the whole, bloody thing. But there is no redo button where we can go back and say “war in the Middle East? I don’t fancy it”. =.=’

    1. Which is not to say that I don’t favor reducing our presence in the area (with the hopes of eliminating it entirely), but this makes that goal a bit… well… a lot trickier to accomplish, I reckon.

  8. Question: Has anybody thought about the relationship of all the above with the extraordinary popular revolutions now taking place throughout the Middle East?
    I hate to admit it, but is it possible that the philosopher president GWB was right after all in that liberation of Iraq would spawn Democracy throughout the region? Even though we in the West view the job as incomplete, our continued military presence may have inspired a bunch of people to rise up to seize the same benefits of civilisation that we have. Life is short.
    It is almost like the Year of Revolutions in Europe in 1848.

    I may be wrong but WTF is going on there? Maybe we should just hang on in there for a little bit longer?

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