WASHINGTON – The United States calls Osama bin Laden's death a potential "game changer" in Afghanistan, but has also begun to modulate its message for fear that runaway optimism will create pressure to suddenly exit a war still up for grabs.
The top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan sought to walk that fine line Tuesday. Army Maj. Gen. John Campbell told reporters at the Pentagon that he sees great potential for bin Laden's death to draw dispirited Taliban fighters away from the insurgency.
Videos of bin Laden that were captured in the raid on his compound and released by the U.S. government on Saturday depict a gray-bearded bin Laden wrapped in a blanket, watching himself on TV. Campbell described him as "alone and desperate" and said the image could send a powerful message to Taliban fighters who bear the brunt of combat while their leaders hide in Pakistan.
"I think the insurgents are going to see this and say, 'Hey, why am I doing this?'" Campbell said.
As President Barack Obama nears a decision on the size and pace of U.S. troop withdrawals that he has promised will begin in July, the administration is hopeful that the elimination of bin Laden will deal a wider psychological blow to the Taliban and other insurgent groups associated with al-Qaida. But it believes that a sudden troop pullout would risk losing the war.
In a Congress struggling to reduce the deficit, war-weary lawmakers are clamoring for the U.S. to shrink its presence in Afghanistan. The war tab for American taxpayers now stands at $10 billion a month as the conflict approaches the 10-year mark. Bin Laden's death, widely cheered in the U.S. as a historic achievement, has given stronger voice to those calling for troop withdrawals.
"Osama Bin Laden's death was more than a critical triumph in our fight against terrorism. It provides a potentially game-changing opportunity to build momentum for a political solution in Afghanistan that could bring greater stability to the region and bring our troops home," Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told a hearing Tuesday.
Kerry rejected a "precipitous withdrawal" but argued for working toward "the smallest footprint necessary, a presence that puts Afghans in charge — and presses them to step up to that task — at the same time that it secures our interests and accomplishes our mission of destroying al-Qaida and preventing Afghanistan from ever again becoming a terrorist sanctuary."
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he hopes Obama decides to pull out a significant number of troops this summer. But he said calls for all troops to leave by a fixed deadline are not supported by a majority of Democrats in Congress.
"I've urged the president to have a significant drawdown in July because it's supposed to be a message of urgency to the Afghans as to taking responsibility for their own security and it's not going to be an urgent message if it's not significant," Levin said.
In a letter Monday to Obama, eight House Republicans and Democrats wrote that eliminating bin Laden "does not change the reality that America still faces a determined and violent adversary. It does, however, require us to re-examine our policy of nation building in Afghanistan. We believe it is no longer the best way to defend America against terror attacks, and we urge you to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan that are not crucial to the immediate national security objective of combating al-Qaida."
The bin Laden death has also presented new opportunities as well as problems for Pakistan. The U.S. seeks Pakistan as an important ally in combating Islamic extremism, even as the Pakistanis are suspected of tolerating or even supporting the Taliban and the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which is especially active in fighting U.S. and Afghan forces in eastern Afghanistan.
Having found and killed bin Laden deep inside Pakistan — with evidence that he had lived there for at least five years, almost next-door to a Pakistani military academy — the U.S. is using that as leverage to force the Pakistanis to take stronger action against the Haqqani network and the Taliban, whose longtime leader, Mullah Omar, is believed to operate from the Pakistani city of Quetta.
"We're going to need some help from Pakistan," Campbell said.
Kerry will travel to Pakistan and Afghanistan in the coming days in what would be the first such trip by a senior lawmaker since the bin Laden operation, U.S. officials said. Kerry has been a champion of U.S. aid to Pakistan and the Obama administration has in the past asked him to smooth tensions with Islamabad.
Kerry's office would not confirm his travel to Pakistan, citing security reasons. The senator said last week he would visit Afghanistan this weekend.
Among the issues in play is a U.S. request to interview three women who were inside the al-Qaida leader's compound at the time he was killed. They were left behind when the U.S. raiders took bin Laden's body; they have been in Pakistani custody since.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the U.S. is seeking access to "a variety of sources of information ... related to bin Laden's house and people there and we believe we are going to get there."
Asked about possible U.S. troop withdrawals, Campbell declined to discuss specifics. Officials have said Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has yet to submit his recommendations on troop withdrawals to the Pentagon.
Campbell was emphatic, however, that the bin Laden death should not lead to a sudden U.S. pullout.
"I don't think the war is over," he said.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee contributed to this report.
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP
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