With bin Laden dead, why doesn’t the U.S. leave Afghanistan?

May 11, 2011

In 2003, the United States invaded Iraq citing two justifications: to depose Saddam Hussein and to destroy Iraq’s banned weapons program. Within a year, Hussein and his accomplices were imprisoned, and it had been discovered there was no Iraqi banned weapons program. Having achieved its goals, why didn’t the United States leave? Seven years later, this question haunts the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

In 2001, the United States invaded Afghanistan, citing two justifications: to find Osama bin Laden, and break up al Qaeda. Bin Laden is now dead, and al Qaeda broken.

So why doesn’t the United States leave?

By autumn, American forces will have spent a full decade in Afghanistan — conducting patrols, bombing the heinous, bombing the innocent. The United States has roughly 100,000 soldiers and air crew in Afghanistan, almost as many as the peak force in Iraq. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan constrains the Taliban, and the Taliban are an awful group. But the Taliban are a central Asian problem afflicting Afghanistan and Pakistan — their existence does not in any way threaten the United States’ national interest.

Having fulfilled its goals in Afghanistan, why doesn’t the United States leave?

Max Boot, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow, writes in the Wall Street Journal that, “Since 9-11, al-Qaeda has never had more than a few dozen fighters inside Afghanistan at any given time.” Boot is a hardliner — he supports the Afghanistan war, and is author of the 2003 book Savage Wars of Peace, a spirited defense of superpower engagement in low-level conflicts. Boot also thinks there are terrorist groups other than al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

But with bin-Laden dead, how could “a few dozen fighters” and miscellaneous criminal bands justify keeping 100,000 American military personnel, plus 40,000 NATO military personal, in Afghanistan? Justify the continuing violation of Afghan sovereignty? The United States has never declared war on Afghanistan — we just attacked.

Most important, how can the United States justify continuing to kill civilians in Afghanistan? U.S. and NATO forces may not intend to kill Afghan civilians. To the dead, it’s all the same.

After the al Qaeda attack on the United States, the United States counterattack on Afghanistan could be rationalized as self defense. With bin Laden dead, that rationale fades away. To think that any country that harbors scattered bands of bad people should be invaded and methodically bombed by the United States is madness.

So with bin Laden gone — why don’t we leave Afghanistan?

When Barack Obama became president, the United States had about 70,000 soldiers and air crew in Afghanistan. Obama promised the Afghanistan “surge,” which raised the force level, would end in summer 2011. So even before bin Laden was killed, U.S. forces were expected to begin leaving Afghanistan around now. Instead, the White House and Defense Department are saying combat forces will remain in Afghanistan perhaps until 2014.

That would be 14 years of occupation — thousands of Americans dead, tens of thousands of Afghans dead — in order to accomplish what? In order to demonstrate U.S. muscle flexing, and to postpone the moment when Western forces leave Afghanistan in worse condition than they found it. With bin Laden dead, the time has come to end American military adventurism in Afghanistan — can U.S. forces on the ground there even describe what they are now fighting for? — and begin Afghan reconstruction.

What follows are a few notes on the bin Laden raid, which your columnist thinks was moral and which I defended here on the BBC:

Those “stealth helicopters.” Radar evasion — which is debatable for a helicopter — had little, if anything, to do with their use. Two Black Hawks with stealth features, trailed by two Chinooks, flew toward bin Laden’s compound. The Chinook, a 1960s design, has no stealthy features: on radar screens, it looks like a flying barn. So the presence of the Chinooks would have betrayed the stealth helicopters to radar operators.

The reason for the “stealth” helicopters is that they make less noise than standard rotary aircraft, aiding the element of surprise. No helicopter is quiet: the Pakistani press reported people in Abbottabad left their houses to see what all the helicopter noise was. “Stealth” helicopters are merely loud, rather than ear-splitting. Also the stealth Black Hawk has infrared shielding, in case Pakistani forces fired heat-seeking missiles, which didn’t happen.

Why didn’t the Pakistani military respond to a 40-minute raid near its capital? One reason is that the Pak military is not exactly a well-oiled machine: the Russian fleet approaching Tsushima Strait in 1905 is the right analogy. This is something to think about when pondering that Pakistan’s army must protect atomic bombs. Another reason is that Pakistan’s defense net points east, toward India. The raiders approached from the west, from Afghanistan.

It also may be that the United States was “spoofing” Pakistani radars and communications: causing the raiding helicopters to disappear electronically, without “jamming” (producing static and systems failures), which would announce something unusual was happening. Don’t be surprised if it turns out one or more U.S. electronic warfare aircrafts were in Pakistani airspace that night, spoofing Islamabad’s national security net. And don’t be surprised if it turns out that U.S. ground-attack aircraft, including this heavily armed plane, specialized to fire on advancing soldiers, were above Pakistan in case the raid went south.

Why wasn’t the V-22 used? The Pentagon has spent at least $30 billion on the V-22 tilt-rotor, which is newer and more advanced than the Black Hawk helicopter. The V-22 was designed for a mission profile like the bin Laden raid — fly a long distance through hostile airspace at twice the speed of a helicopter, land and take off like a helicopter, fly back at twice helicopter speed. Yet the V-22 wasn’t used. Though operational since 2007, the V-22 has never been employed near hostile forces in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This aircraft had a poor safety record in testing, and has been cited by Defense Secretary Robert Gates as an example of procurement waste. If it wasn’t right for the bin Laden raid, the V-22 will never be right. Either the lack of V-22 use was inter-service rivalry of the silliest kind (Navy SEALS staged the mission, the V-22 is operated by the Marines and the Air Force) or the V-22 is a very expensive dud that needs to be canceled before any more taxpayer money is wasted.

Photos, top to bottom: Farmer Jalaluddin, 70, carries harvested vegetables past the compound where U.S. Navy SEAL commandos reportedly killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad May 5, 2011. Pakistan, in apparent reference to old rival India, said on Thursday any country that tried to raid its territory in the way U.S. forces did to kill Osama bin Laden would face consequences from its military. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro; Part of a damaged helicopter is seen lying near the compound after U.S. Navy SEAL commandos killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, May 2, 2011. REUTERS/Stringer


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

I am posting to dispel a few of your V-22 myths. As a pilot who has flown the V-22 in both Iraq and Afghanistan I can assure you that the V-22 has been “employed near hostile forces.” I am very surprised at this statement as it is common knowledge that there have been 6 Marine squadrons deployed in support of OEF and OIF. Additionally, we have supported combat operations in these (and other) campaigns with Air Force CV-22 dets and MEU dets. I am curious what you think the V-22s are doing in these theaters?
I don’t think that journalists like yourself will ever understand the value of this aircraft. As you stated in your column the aircraft can move at twice the speed of a traditional helicopter. That is true, but doesn’t really paint the whole picture. The V-22 can fly twice as far, twice as fast, and at altitudes well above the threat envelope of small arms, manpads, and IEDs. The two squadrons that I have deployed with have moved tens of thousands of troops and key personnel around the battlefield without a single person being harmed by enemy fire. Just think about that for a minute. How many lives have we saved by getting our troops off the roads of Iraq and Afghanistan? Tactically the V-22 has proven itself time and time again in the NUMEROUS combat missions that it has been involved in.

Recently a section of V-22s rescued a downed pilot from Libya… here’s the link in case you missed that story:
http://www.star-telegram.com/2011/03/22/ 2942323/mv-22-osprey-shines-in-libya-res cue.html

The more bothersome comment in your column is on the safety record of the aircraft. The Marine Corps has had two fatal accidents in the history of this aircraft. That is an incredible statistic that no other military rotor-wing aircraft can match. The mishaps that occurred during testing were unfortunate, but a long time ago (10 years). In fact, the Osprey just surpassed 100,000 flight hours and has been the safest rotor-wing program of the last 10 years. It is time to let that lie die.

Here is the article that talks about that milestone and safety record:
http://www.shephard.co.uk/news/rotorhub/ bell-boeing-built-v-22-osprey-surpasses- 100-000-flight-hours/8467/

I cannot tell you why the V-22 was not used in the Bin Laden raid in Abbottabad. But I can tell you that it is not for the reasons that you imply in your column. I believe that the V-22 would have been an excellent choice for that mission and would have volunteered for that raid in a second. Anybody that has been around this program realizes the value and capability that the V-22 has brought to our service. Maybe it is time for our media to get on board.

Posted by 97swede | Report as abusive

people have to understand that while we may have won the battle and dealt a critical blow in the process, the war is far from over because fundamentalist islamic terrorism is much, much bigger than one person. if you really think that killing bin laden is going to magically make everything ok and end the threat of al-qaeda, you are sadly mistaken.

Posted by steelersfan974 | Report as abusive

There is a very simple reason the V-22 wasn’t used; The 160th SOAR regiment that conducted the raid does not have them.

But beyond that, given the particulars of the location it is unlikely an aircraft the size of the V-22 would have been able to get in close enough to the compound to execute the raid as planned.

In response to the above commenter “97 swede”, the V-22 may be a great aircraft but it is redundant. The U.S. Army’s helicopters, and the Air Force’s combination of C-130 and C-17 airplanes, fill all the roles the V-22 was designed to.

Simply put, the marines did not need a new aircraft they merely needed to use the Army and Air Force assets on hand, as this raid demonstrated.

Posted by Biteoverbark | Report as abusive

All that i ever heard was that Osama bin Laden was dead. I didn’t know that al-Qaeda had been “broken” (whatever that means). Let’s be serious here. If bin Laden was able to hide from the U.S. military and Intelligence agencies for almost ten years, he’s not an idiot, he had plans for his eventual death. Another person will step up to take his place.

Besides that your article has a fatal flaw in the argument about the troop surge. And i quote “Obama promised the Afghanistan “surge,” which raised the force level, would end in summer 2011. So even before bin Laden was killed, U.S. forces were expected to begin leaving Afghanistan around now.” you said it yourself the SURGE is supposed to end in the summer (not at the beginning of summer, IN the summer) of 2011. It is still summer. and 2, the official beginning of summer is June 20th. It isn’t summer yet. Check your facts before you publish them.

An end to a troop surge is not a complete withdrawl.

Posted by dlr3y | Report as abusive

@ 97swede

First, thank you for your service.

Second, I understand your affection for your aircraft, which you know as well as anyone and which carried you safely (evidently) wherever you took it. Having just done some reading, I see that my opinion of the V-22, which I developed after the report came out about the crash in Marana, was wrong. At the time, they identified the cause as engine stall due to vortex ring state which was exacerbated by the proximity of the V-22 in front. I had read that the maneuver was common and safe with other helicopters but for some reason the V-22 couldn’t handle it, with 19 dead Marines as the result. Pretty harsh.

Now I read that the Osprey is actually better than other helicopters in a VRS situation, while being only slightly less able than other helicopters to operate in close proximity to one another. At the time it was a question of, “Hey, if it can’t even do what regular helicopters do then what’s the point?” Now that many more thousands of hours have been flown we know these concerns are minimal. Of course lighter and nimbler helicopters will always have a role, particularly in urban environments.

I would like to point out the author isn’t coming down on one side or the other, and he’s quoting our own Defense Secretary’s criticisms of the Osprey. When the report on the Osprey came out, there had been two fatal crashes (another one in the East Coast I think a few dead don’t recall but the pilot was very experienced) and no one could figure out if it was a central defect to the V-22 or pilot inexperience with such a novel system. Now it seems the latter.

Ten years of no crashes and compared to other helicopters limited combat roles don’t make the same impression as those two crashes did a decade ago. Maybe that needs to change. But there is one other problem with the V-22 you aren’t considering. I’ll save it for another post later because I’m out of time.

Again, thanks for your service, and thanks for taking the time to post your viewpoint here. You have already changed at least one mind.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

Okay I have a few more minutes I’ll try to get to my other point quickly although I really should do more reading first. Let me just refer to it and you can probably find better info than what I can state.

I’ve read how Gates is trying to change the way new systems are developed. Instead of the “99%” doctrine, he is advocating the “80%” doctrine as a result of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m winging it right now and I might be restating this wrong, but I think he means that instead of developing weapons which use complicated systems so they can handle 99% of the combat situations they encounter (nearly perfect in other words), it is better to aim for 80% and produce more inexpensive and reliable weapons in greater numbers. As you know, our military vehicles have taken a huge beating for the last ten years and it has been a struggle of paramount importance to keep working equipment in the hands of our commanders in the war zones. For the most part, the group of complicated super weapons including the Osprey were designed to go up against modern armies (USSR, China)for conventional warfare. The lesson of the last ten years is that we need simpler weapons which do not need to excel in every situation, but which should be able to do a few things very well and without undue expense.

Remember the old adage, an army fights on it’s stomach? The modern paradigm would be that an army fights on a vast expensive supply line of fuel, supplies, spare parts, etc. The less maintanence, the greater effectiveness. To the argument that saving money puts soldier’s lives at risk, I would respond with a quote by the most successful general no one’s ever heard of: “It is better to be present with ten men than absent with ten thousand.” -Tamerlane.

Another valid comparison to illustrate what Gates is getting at is the design of the Sherman tank. One Sherman was no match for the best German tanks, particularly the Tiger. It would take a swarm of Shermans to knock out a Tiger. Many lives were lost. Yet the Sherman was light, fast, easy to mass produce and easy to repair in the field. Compared to the German tanks it required far less fuel (although diesel would have been better than gasoline perhaps). Point is, we had so many more Shermans than all the other German tanks put together that their overwhelming presence instead of their individual performance is what won the war. Thus, many more lives were saved.

I don’t believe that the V-22 will be put into the kind of production numbers that the military requires. There may be good or bad reasons for this, but without a massive rollout the cost of repairs, spare parts, and unit cost will never compete with traditional helicopters. The need to be able to fly like both a plane and a helicopter is just not compelling enough compared to the price. However, we do have the current operational craft and we undoubtedly learned a great deal of practical knowledge about tilt-rotors should we ever need it.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

Upon reading my own post I realize I used that Tamerlane quote because I just love it so much rather than it illuminating any point. Here’s a paraphrase which is so butchered I probably shouldn’t have even tried to link it to him but is more along the lines of what I was trying to say:

“It would be better to present with a thousand helicopters which cost ten million dollars apiece than present with a hundred helicopters which cost 100 million apiece.

Posted by BajaArizona | Report as abusive

the phenomenon why Pakistan didn’t respond to the u.s. attack looks like some kind of conspiracy b/w two countries. I have heard some senior people saying that this operation is all done with the collaboration of Pakistani govt. and military . They already knew that u.s. is gonna strike but they held their tongue because they were asked to do so. meanwhile Pakistani f-16s were in the air to scramble any encounter but they were not ordered to do so. according to history, America has always been used to take the credit of success and to impose the filth of failure on other nations, so its not a new thing for anyone who is into the news and knows the typical behaviours or diplomacies

Posted by Adil_01 | Report as abusive

the phenomenon why Pakistan didn’t respond to the u.s. attack looks like some kind of conspiracy b/w two countries. I have heard some senior people saying that this operation is all done with the collaboration of Pakistani govt. and military . They already knew that u.s. is gonna strike but they held their tongue because they were asked to do so. meanwhile Pakistani f-16s were in the air to scramble any encounter but they were not ordered to do so. according to history, America has always been used to take the credit of success and to impose the filth of failure on other nations, so its not a new thing for anyone who is into the news and knows the typical behaviours or diplomacies

Posted by Adil_01 | Report as abusive