Where things stand
Since it seems impossible to avoid the ubiquitous questions about how his removal could/should alter our entire approach in Afghanistan, I feel the need to weigh in again.
It's dissipating already and inevitably of course, this sense of gleeful upheaval in America in the wake of Osama bin Laden's demise. The few days following that bastard's takedown struck me as ones of tremendous relief and satisfaction for the nation, and for all of humanity. The celebrations in my old home of New York City were a sight to behold, even from afar...all the weariness of a decade of the (ridiculously named) "War on Terror" or the (more apt but still terribly lame) "Long War" was broken up briefly for a moment of pride and even jubilation. I understand perfectly well -- I think most of us do -- that it's not following the tenets of compassion and forgiveness to celebrate the killing of anyone, no matter how vile. But for the good of civilization, he had to go...and we can sincerely hope that it weakens the movement he fronted.
I am bothered by the sobering thought that the other shoe -- the reminder that the fight against al Qaeda, and really any terrorist gang with an axe to grind or a West to blame, must continue -- is yet to drop for most of the jubilant or even relieved. As for the perspective that the death of bin Laden weakens our case for staying in Afghanistan any longer, I can understand it on its face...if only in terms of logic at its simplest. We sent our troops in to apprehend or kill those who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks, and to overthrow the Taliban regime which sheltered al Qaeda and refused to turn them over. But if the era of asymmetrical warfare has taught us anything, it's that things get quickly messy on the ground, and missions grow more complicated each day. So what began as "Let's go get 'em!" transitioned to "Let's clean up this place" (with far too few troops), to eventually, "Wait, let's build the Afghan capacity to protect and govern themselves so we can eventually excuse ourselves without a failed state back on our hands." And that's pretty much what we've been working on in earnest and with proper resources for only about two years. There is a long, LONG way to go to see that through.
We're mired chest-deep, or maybe scalp-deep, in that mission now. And I'd guess we're pretty damn far from anything close to a consensus on how much more we're willing to dedicate (whether we're doing that right is another story...more on that another time). What those who'd automatically shut it down and bring everyone home might wish to consider is that we've left Afghanistan in the lurch before, with serious consequences...and that many commanders and even independent observers insist that we are making progress now ("fragile and reversible gains," but still, gains). What those who'd continue the rebuilding endlessly might wish to consider is that the number of attacks by Afghans in uniform on Coalition members, or on their government, or on their own civilians, point to a worsening situation. At the very least, we must be willing to constantly and truly re-evaluate our approach and have the courage to alter it as needed.
One of those incidents took place just two weeks ago at the base located alongside Kabul Airport; eight airmen and one civilian of NTM-A lost their lives when an Afghan pilot opened fire on them. When attacks this disturbing were far more rare, I was troubled by the overreaction to them by those who didn't work alongside Afghan soldiers...and now I feel instead the helpless reaction from half a world away, wondering how many more our public (those paying attention, anyway) have the stomach for.
The week before that, on April 18, a bold attack aimed at the Ministry of Defense made headlines. It unfolded just a few steps from where I worked most of the time there. My trusted colleague and friend John was there that day, advising our counterparts in the MoD and Afghan National Army, as was one of our indispensable interpreters, Masoud. As the news unfolded (it wasn't easy to find in US media), I experienced relief that my guys were alright, sadness that observant Afghan soldiers were killed, worry that the infiltrators got as close as they did to the minister's office, and fear that the will of the opposition -- no matter who that means -- could be greater than that of those who support the government. It doesn't help that it's awfully hard for fair-minded, patriotic Afghans to support the Karzai & cronies regime.
Anyone wishing to dig deeper into some analysis of why Osama's death is not a game-changer in Afghanistan should read this excellent post by a blogger named Old Blue. I particularly felt the passage below acutely...
Deceptively Satisfying (on 'Afghan Quest')
Once the complexity and difficulty of Afghanistan became clear, the “good war” came under fire. Most of us who were personally involved in Afghanistan while it was still the “forgotten, good war” (as opposed to the “bad war” in Iraq), knew that the goodwill towards Afghanistan would wane as the nature of the conflict proceeded to baffle the minds of the ill-informed and idealistic. Now there is a more plausible reason to declare victory and abandon Afghanistan to its fate, as if it will never again influence the world it is a part of.