WASHINGTON — Osama bin Laden's death hasn't changed the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, and it must continue, the U.S. commander in charge of the country's east said Tuesday.
"One man does not make the war on terror," Maj. Gen. John Campbell told reporters via videoconference from Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan.
Instead, Campbell said, the demise of al Qaida's leader in a U.S. raid in Pakistan could help pave the way for insurgent groups, including the Taliban, to reconcile with U.S.-led coalition forces and the Afghan government. But he couldn't offer specifics on when a reconciliation process would begin, saying only that bin Laden's demise would scare them.
"I think the insurgents are going to see this and say, 'Hey, why am I doing this?'" Campbell said.
Campbell's comments appeared to be the latest effort by U.S. officials to strike a delicate balance: painting bin Laden's death as a triumph against terrorism but not a game-changer in the war in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials are trying to defuse calls by some lawmakers to dramatically reduce the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, casting bin Laden's death as a small part of the broader effort to defeat al Qaida, which could find a new leader.
Pentagon officials remain concerned that some insurgent elements — particularly those loyal to Taliban leader Mullah Omar, who purportedly had close ties to bin Laden — will aggressively come after U.S. troops.
Some militant groups, such as the Haqqani network, wouldn't be driven to reconciliation, Campbell said. He called the Haqqani network, not al Qaida, the "most lethal threat" to eastern Afghanistan, which includes the capital, Kabul.
A day before the raid that killed bin Laden, the Taliban announced the start of a "spring offensive," and on Tuesday, about 200 Taliban fighters stormed a police outpost in mountainous part of eastern Afghanistan, triggering a gunfight that left two insurgents dead, according to news reports. Over the weekend, dozens of Taliban fighters launched attacks on Afghan government and military installations in the southern city of Kandahar.
In Washington, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that it's "unsustainable" to continue spending $10 billion a month on an open-ended war effort. But Kerry sought to walk the same line as military leaders, arguing that a sudden withdrawal of U.S. forces would be a mistake and that military leaders "should be working toward the smallest footprint necessary."
"Osama Bin Laden's death...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," Kerry said at the start of a hearing on Afghanistan.
U.S. officials have refused to say what effect bin Laden's death will have on the pace of the planned withdrawal of 100,000 troops from Afghanistan, which is scheduled to begin in July.
Kerry is scheduled to travel to Afghanistan this weekend in the first visit by a senior U.S. official to the region since bin Laden's death. The visit comes as lawmakers on Capitol Hill are debating whether to continue providing billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan after bin Laden was found hiding in a compound in a military enclave 35 miles from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.
Amid worsening U.S.-Pakistani relations, Campbell, whose area of responsibility includes Afghanistan's 450-mile border with Pakistan, praised Pakistan for providing intelligence help and capturing foreign fighters crossing into Afghanistan. He said that Pakistan has increased the number of its troops on the border to 140,000 from 30,000 in the past year.
But he said "we didn't have very good contact" with Pakistani officials on the other side of the border for two days after bin Laden's death. Campbell didn't say why communications were cut off, but said they'd been restored.
U.S. officials have oscillated between depicting bin Laden's death as a major coup and suggesting to his followers that the al Qaida leader wasn't the martyr they envisioned. Over the weekend, the U.S. released several videos taken from the compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, including one depicting bin Laden watching himself on television. At the same time, officials said he was leading al Qaida's command and control center from that house.
Earlier, U.S. officials said bin Laden's compound was valued at $1 million, even though the videos showed broken furniture and chipped paint.
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011