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Thursday, June 16, 2011

Osama bin Laden's killing is a huge victory for the Obama administration and it will go a long way towards giving closure to Americans. But will it also revive the 10-year-old question about the wisdom of the war in Afghanistan, in which half as many Americans have already died as Bin Laden killed on 9/11, not to mention the many more Afghan civilians who have lost their lives in the attack that George W Bush launched on their country in October 2001?

It was understandable that Americans wanted justice after the appalling atrocities of 9/11, but justice should never be confused with revenge. Revenge is hot-blooded, but justice needs to be cool and controlled. Rushing to topple the Taliban looked more like a response governed by revenge and a desire to show that something was being done rather than a response that fitted the crime.

The 19 men who perpetrated 9/11 were not Afghans and none had trained for their devastating quadruple hijacking in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden's haven in Taliban country was a short-term marriage of convenience, which the Bush administration made no real effort to break other than by its rhetorical demand that the Taliban hand him over or else they would be punished. By the time the demand was made bin Laden had already left Kandahar and the Taliban probably had as little power to catch him as indeed the Americans had.

It is often forgotten that it was not the Taliban who offered bin Laden sanctuary in Afghanistan. When he decided to leave Sudan, his previous headquarters, the Afghans who gave him a place to stay were the former mujahideen leaders who were fighting for their lives against the emerging new Taliban movement. Bin Laden, with his wives and followers, flew to Jalalabad on an official plane provided by the then Afghan president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who remains an associate of the current president, Hamid Karzai, as chairman of the high peace council. The al-Qaida leader only switched allegiance to the Taliban opportunistically after they captured Kabul in 1996 and took power in most of the country. Only then did he develop ties with Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership by moving to Kandahar and helping to fund them.

After 9/11 these ties loosened again when bin Laden left for Tora Bora and the mountains of eastern Afghanistan which he knew from his days as a jihadi fighter against the Russians. That was the moment when the Americans should have relied on special forces and the methodical intelligence which they seem to have used over the last few weeks. Ousting the Taliban by a massive display of American air power and plunging Afghanistan back into war was not the right strategy. It did not capture bin Laden, nor was it likely to. We do not yet know when exactly bin Laden left Afghanistan for Pakistan but it may well have been in those final weeks of 2001, thereby making the subsequent US focus on Afghanistan even less relevant.

In recent months Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders have given numerous hints that they would be willing to break formally with al-Qaida as part of a peace deal that involved a full departure of US troops from Afghanistan. Will Barack Obama now finally put his weight behind exploring that option?

His speech last night set a tone that was markedly different from the White House triumphalism that greeted the capture of Saddam Hussein.

It was measured and diplomatic. But whether he would have acted differently from Bush if he had been president in 2001 is a counter-factual that no one can answer with certainty. Perhaps he would have given more time and thought to his response, though he too would probably have succumbed to the temptation, and the domestic political pressure, to use overwhelming force. After all, he has often described Afghanistan as a war of necessity whereas Iraq was a war of choice.

That is a mistake. Afghanistan was also a war of choice. Now that bin Laden has been found and killed in Pakistan, and al-Qaida has dispersed across the region to north Africa, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq, Obama again has the chance to choose. The relief that Americans are breathing this morning needs to be shared with the people of Afghanistan. Start the talks, prepare for the ceasefire, and accelerate the US withdrawal that, as the opinion polls show, most Afghans want.

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