The death of Osama bin Laden presents an important opportunity to reassess U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Current U.S. thinking centers on two interests. The first is preventing al Qaeda and its Taliban allies from reestablishing a safe haven. The second is preventing the violence in Afghanistan from destabilizing Pakistan, thus putting its nuclear forces at risk and increasing the likelihood of nuclear terrorism. Coalition strategy is based on the assumptions that the only way to deny al Qaeda safe haven is by building a strong central Afghan state and that Pakistan’s nuclear complex will become increasingly vulnerable to militant attacks if the Taliban succeeds in Afghanistan.
Both assumptions are wrong. The United States does not need to build a state in Afghanistan because the conditions that allowed al Qaeda safe haven in the 1990s have permanently changed. Moreover, the steps needed to help Pakistan secure its nuclear arsenal have nothing to do with the war in Afghanistan. Policymakers should scale back their ambitions in Afghanistan. If they do so, they could cut troop levels by 80–90 percent while defending core U.S. interests and dramatically reducing the costs to America in both blood and treasure.