If we give up on them now, for the second time in a generation the United States would have forsaken that nation once its own short-term interests have been met. Yes, Al Qaeda is weaker than it was. But it has its imitators. An abrupt U.S. pullout will enable them to prey on the frustrations of the forsaken, spawning a new cycle of anti-American resentment. That may be enough to turn Afghanistan once again into a launching pad for terrorist attacks, if not against the United States, upon its friends in the region. President Obama made one courageous decision when he followed the recommendations of General David Petraeus and sent sufficient forces there to mount a successful surge. He should stay the course, reducing the American presence gradually.
The next challenge will be Pakistan. On Capitol Hill and elsewhere we here complaints of unrequited love on the part of this supposed ally. Nothing will strengthen the hands of radical elements determined to bring that country’s shaky government down more than American retribution. The Pakistani’s know that they did not do all they could have to lead the U.S. to bin Laden. They need not be reminded.
The U.S. should do all it can to make it easy for Pakistan to join the “winning side.” And that is the side that stands for democratic values and tolerance. With bin Laden gone and al Quada less a presence, Pakistan should find it in its own best interests to act as allies actually do. The time may be at hand for the United States to broker a meeting of the minds between a more stabilized Afghanistan, a Pakistan, less dominated by its military and less inclined to regard democratic India an implacable enemy, and India, an emerging power in its own right and an increasingly important and valuable American ally. That would be a triple win.
The downfall bin Laden may accelerate ongoing efforts to slash the defense budget beyond acceptable or defensible levels. Last Sunday, the world witnessed what brave, highly trained, professional military, backed up by state of the art equipment and exceptional intelligence gathering capabilities can achieve. Building such capabilities took decades. Drastic and dramatic cutbacks could leave the United States more vulnerable to future would-be aggressors, be they rogue states, terrorists, or military competitors.
In the name of “deficit reduction,” a coalition of “new isolationist” on both the left and the right called for as much as a trillion dollar slashing in the Pentagon in the next decade. By bin Laden’s estimates, that was roughly the cost of the war he forced upon us. Defense, like entitlements, and discretionary spending can and should, of course, be cut, but carefully. Congress should resist the clamor to pick up the axe. They should pick up the scalpel instead.
In opting for a strategic strike, rather than bombing from the air, President Obama showed himself capable of thinking outside the box. He and his team also showed what careful planning and teamwork can achieve. They should approach these outstanding challenges in similar fashion. If they follow this less traveled and more arduous road, they like Frost’s traveler, we'll find that it made all the difference.
Alvin S. Felzenberg lectures at the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and Yale University. He is the author of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t): Rethinking the Presidential Rating Game, and the former communications director for the 9/11 Commission.