By Nora Bensahel, Special to CNN
After President Obama announced that Osama bin Laden had been killed, crowds spontaneously gathered near the World Trade Center site and the White House to mark the occasion. For them and many other Americans, this news resurrected the emotions and memories of that terrible day almost 10 years ago. It provided a long-sought feeling of closure, and a sense that this particular chapter in American history has ended.
Those deeply-felt sentiments will place increasing pressure on President Obama to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan sooner rather than later. The war in Afghanistan has always been justified as a necessary response to the September 11 attacks. On October 11, 2001 – three days after the United States began military operations in Afghanistan – President George W. Bush clearly told the American people, “This particular battlefield will last as long as it takes to bring al Qaeda to justice.”
On May 1, 2011, President Obama declared, “Justice has been done.”
Of course, the war in Afghanistan was never solely about killing or capturing bin Laden. The United States sought to overthrow the Taliban because it had allowed bin Laden to operate inside Afghanistan.
Once that occurred in December 2001, the objective shifted to building a new Afghan government that would be capable of controlling its territory so that al Qaeda and other terrorist groups could no longer use the country as a base of operations. That objective still has not been achieved.
Although notable progress has been made, the United States and its NATO allies have affirmed that they will maintain forces in Afghanistan until the end of 2014, even though some troops will start withdrawing this July.
Bin Laden’s death will make it increasingly difficult for the Obama administration to continue pursuing this policy. American support for the war in Afghanistan had already declined to its lowest levels in years even before this news broke. Shortly after President Obama took office, 63 percent of those polls said that they approved of the way that he was handling the situation in Afghanistan, but the most recent poll shows that only 44 percent agree with that statement today.
Public disapproval almost doubled during that same time, from 26 percent to 49 percent. Now that bin Laden is dead, even those who recently supported the war may now believe that the war’s main goals have been achieved and it is time for U.S. forces to come home.
Obama will face an uphill battle convincing Americans – and some members of Congress – that U.S. strategic interests still require spending billions of dollars a month on military operations in Afghanistan.
Maintaining a U.S. robust military presence in Afghanistan through 2014 would help strengthen the Afghan government and security forces and increase the chances that they will be able to control their territory after that time, but if public support for the war further declines now that bin Laden is dead, the worst outcome would be for the United States to continue investing large amounts of blood and treasure without staying in Afghanistan long enough to reap the benefits.
It is not yet clear what path the president will choose to pursue. If he still believes that U.S. strategic interests are at stake in Afghanistan, he must clearly and repeatedly articulate why those interests still matter to an increasingly skeptical American public – especially since U.S. casualties will inevitably rise as the summer fighting season in Afghanistan begins in earnest.
He also must be willing to risk losing the increase in his approval rating that he will undoubtedly gain from having acted so swiftly, decisively and effectively against bin Laden.
In the short term, however, the administration may well choose to withdraw a larger number of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in July than it originally intended. Doing so would reinforce this recent victory over al Qaeda and, more importantly, demonstrate to the American public that the war in Afghanistan is truly starting to wind down.