We don’t need a war in Afghanistan to stop people like bin Laden. We have the ability to strike deep inside the territory of foreign countries if necessary. The United States has both significant airpower and incredibly skilled special operations forces. There’s no way for a high-value terrorist to operate openly without getting himself killed or captured. Similarly, we don’t actually need the cooperation of any particular country’s government to stop terrorists from running a training camp — we can just take out the camp.
Bin Laden also didn’t need a cooperative Taliban regime to stay hidden. A house in Pakistan was good enough.
Since his death, there’s been a renewed bout of speculation as to whether he remained concealed thanks to the tacit or explicit assistance of some elements of the Pakistani government. But whatever the case may be, the kind of open defiance of the United States that characterized the prewar Taliban wasn’t part of the picture. The ongoing military conflict in Afghanistan was, to an amazing extent, irrelevant to the killing of the man who precipitated it.
While the giant military deployment in Afghanistan doesn’t play a crucial role in defending the United States from terrorism, it does complicate our foreign policy. In particular, we’re caught in a feedback loop with the government of Pakistan. We don’t trust it enough to give it the heads up before we send a Navy SEAL team into its territory to find the world’s most wanted man. But we give Pakistan substantial military aid, in large part because without its cooperation, the mission in Afghanistan becomes logistically untenable. Removing troops from Afghanistan means the Pakistani government loses leverage over us and the tail will no longer be able to wag the dog in our bilateral relationship.
Most of all, if this isn’t victory, what would victory look like? Sometimes, American policy in Afghanistan seems aimed at the odd idea that our troops can’t leave the country until they’ve succeeded in killing everyone there who wants us to leave. It also doesn’t make sense for us to be fighting to obtain a permanent military presence in a distant, impoverished, landlocked country. Nothing we can do can guarantee that no future regime in Afghanistan will play host to high-profile terrorist groups. But al-Qaeda has demonstrated an ability to get by without such a host, and we’ve demonstrated the ability to chase terrorists out of even the most remote areas. Our complacency in the face of al-Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan before 9/11 was a mistake, but with bin Laden dead, we can turn the page and say we’ve rectified that error. We’ve achieved what we went in to Afghanistan to achieve, and now it’s time to start heading for the exit.