WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden's death could force President Barack Obama to change his strategy for ending the nearly decadelong Afghan war, including keeping tens of thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan at least until 2014, according to some Western experts and officials.
The key rationale underpinning Obama's strategy — repeated in statements by the president and his lieutenants — is that the huge U.S. troop presence is required to stop the Taliban from retaking power in Afghanistan, which could allow al-Qaida to use the country again as a sanctuary from which to attack the United States.
But bin Laden's death in a U.S. commando raid on a compound in northeastern Pakistan dealt a huge blow to al-Qaida that will almost certainly fuel domestic opposition to the war, some officials and experts said. Polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans oppose the war.
"The American people are going to be pretty quick to write the obituary of al-Qaida because bin Laden is dead," said Christine Fair, an expert at Georgetown University who warned that doing so "is premature" because the terrorist network remains a threat.
The White House said Tuesday that bin Laden's killing was consistent with its strategy, under which U.S. troops will begin withdrawing in July and Afghan forces, who are being trained in greater numbers, will gradually assume greater security responsibilities before taking over the entire country by 2014.
"The president's plan is on track," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "And the focus of that operation, of the … U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, is on al-Qaida."
Yet senior U.S. intelligence experts estimate fewer than 100 al-Qaida fighters are in Afghanistan at any time. And the unprecedented level of violence convulsing the country is overwhelmingly caused by the Taliban and allied groups like the Haqqani network.
Moreover, even before bin Laden's death, the terrorist network based on Pakistan's side of the frontier had already been seriously hurt by the losses of key operatives in strikes by missile-firing CIA drone aircraft.
"With al-Qaida largely displaced from the country … Afghanistan does not carry a strategic value that justifies 100,000 American troops and a $100 billion per year cost, especially given current fiscal restraints," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind.
The pressure to slash federal spending, coupled with the success of the bin Laden raid, could strengthen the hand of Vice President Joe Biden and other senior officials who advocate major cuts in regular U.S. troops and greater reliance on the kind of special forces operations that killed the terrorist leader.
"It was and is an error to equate the Taliban return with al-Qaida's return," Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official, told the Senate Foreign Relations Commission on Tuesday. "And if, however, there is some renewed terrorist presence and activist in Afghanistan, we can and should respond to it, much as we do (using special forces) in other countries such as Yemen and Somalia.
"Afghanistan is simply absorbing more economic, military, human, diplomatic and political resources of every sort than it warrants," he said.