The top American general in eastern Afghanistan hopes that the death of Osama bin Laden will revitalize flagging efforts to reintegrate militants into Afghan society, a key U.S. priority that has so far failed to reduce the country's endemic violence.
"This was the No. 1 guy for al Qaeda. And a lot of people, to include the Taliban, have a symbiotic relationship with al Qaeda," Maj. Gen. John Campbell told Pentagon reporters in a videoconference from Afghanistan. "They're going to think twice now: 'Why are we doing this.… Why was he in Pakistan when I'm suffering over here?'"
Senior U.S. generals believe that the Afghan war cannot be won militarily, and that a solution to the long conflict can come only from persuading militants to lay down their weapons, denounce al Qaeda, and rejoin Afghan society. The Afghan government has invited the Taliban to participate in peace negotiations, but the armed group has yet to indicate a willingness to talk. American commanders acknowledge that few militants have left the battlefield. So far this year, violence in Afghanistan is running at record highs.
While trying to persuade more fighters to join the reintegration process, U.S. officials are also behind an intensifying Special Operations-led campaign to hunt down and kill individual fighters. There's the added incentive of amnesty, financial assistance, and other inducements to militants willing to recognize the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
With U.S. troops preparing to begin withdrawing from Afghanistan in July, Campbell said he was cautiously optimistic that bin Laden's death would lead larger numbers of Taliban fighters to rethink their commitment to the fight.
A video released by the U.S. government over the weekend showed bin Laden in a starkly bare room, watching television footage of himself. Echoing other government officials, Campbell said that the images made the al Qaeda leader appear "alone and desperate." U.S. commandos tracked him down to a fortified mansion outside Islamabad, and far away from any fighting, something Campbell hopes will incite militants to surrender.
"Many of the other insurgent groups that we deal with, the leadership stays in Pakistan," Campbell said. They don't come across the border; they don't share the same hardships as the fighters.… I think there's great potential for many of the insurgents to say, 'Hey, I want to reintegrate.' "
Although Campbell said he thinks the death of bin Laden will cause insurgents to "think twice" about violence, he adds that it's too early to give a time frame or a concrete number of militants who will change their course as a result of the al Qaeda leader's death. The general, whose yearlong tour ends later this month, estimated that roughly 40 militants have contacted Afghan officials about beginning the reintegration process in the days since bin Laden's death.
In its most recent progress report on Afghanistan, the Pentagon estimated that since July, about 2,700 militants have either completed the Afghan government's formal reintegration process -- which concludes with a public ceremony in which the militant lays down his weapon and swears to local elders that he has left the fight -- or have made initial contact with U.S. or Afghan officials.
It's hard to gauge what impact, if any, the outreach efforts are having on the broader war effort. Campbell said that local Afghan governors will sometimes receive phone calls from insurgent leaders who want to bring in a group of a few dozen people, and that the parties will work on their own time to reintegrate them. This makes it hard for U.S. officials to know exactly how many fighters are leaving the fight, he said.
"A lot of times,we won't even know that's happening," Campbell said. "I think those numbers are much greater than probably what you're seeing out there in the press."
Even given Campbell's optimism about reform in a post-bin Laden battlefield era, he stressed that the war effort is not limited to the manhunt of one man. "They'll find somebody to replace him," he said of the al Qaeda network. "They're going to have some issues, I think, without bin Laden there, based on fundraising and the ability to have his charisma to bring in funds, that kind of thing, to recruit ... [but] I don't think the war's over and I don't think the loss of bin Laden will cause us to change our strategy at least in [Regional Command] East."