Will Bin Laden's Death Alter U.S. Military Operations?

In just two months, the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is expected to begin. Dexter Filkins, who writes for The New Yorker magazine, and has covered Afghanistan and Pakistan extensively, talks to Steve Inskeep about what bin Laden's death means to Afghan operations.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So that's some of the fall out for Pakistan. And now let's talk about how bin Laden's death affects U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. Dexter Filkins writes for The New Yorker magazine and has covered both Afghanistan and Pakistan. He's on the line.

Welcome back to the program.

Mr. DEXTER FILKINS (Writer, The New Yorker Magazine): Hi. Thanks very much.

INSKEEP: I suppose we could remember here that U.S. forces went into Afghanistan in the first place, basically, to get Osama bin Laden. So how does his death affect U.S. efforts there?

Mr. FILKINS: Not much, really. The war in Afghanistan is an Afghan war. You've got the sanctuaries in Pakistan, which are extremely important. And you had, over the years, a pretty substantial amount of kind of intermarriage between people in al-Qaida and the Taliban. They're pretty close at the top.

But for the most part, when the Taliban are fighting in Afghanistan, I mean, it's an Afghan affair. And in Afghanistan, leaving aside the question of Pakistan, but inside Afghanistan, al-Qaida's pretty marginal.

INSKEEP: Does this create an opportunity for President Obama - who, of course, wants to begin drawing down forces this year in Afghanistan - an opportunity to justify that policy?

Mr. FILKINS: Yeah, of course. But I think it depends on what he wants. And, I mean, at least I'm not entirely sure what that is at this point. If President Obama wants to stay in Afghanistan, everyone that I know who's involved in Afghanistan - whether it's State Department officials or military officers or aid workers - believes that fixing that place and succeeding there is a many, many year project, probably a generational project.

And so, in a sense, to the extent that President Obama recognizes that and agrees with that, he's going to have a hard time making his case to the American people. Because, I mean, this is kind of - you know, it's the book end. Look, he's dead. Let's bring the boys home. And so, in that sense, I think it'd be more difficult. If he wants to start pulling his guys out, sure. That's easy.

INSKEEP: Let me swing back to Pakistan for one moment, Dexter Filkins, because if I'm not mistaken, you traveled to Pakistan quite recently with Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. What is...

Mr. FILKINS: Ten days ago. Yeah.

INSKEEP: Ten days ago. So this would have been just before Osama bin Laden was captured. I assume you got no inkling that that might be in the works. But I want to get a sense of the background of cooperation here. How frustrated was the U.S. military, even before there were these indications in the public that Osama bin Laden was essentially in a military cantonment area?

Mr. FILKINS: Well, I've been going to Pakistan for many, many years, since before 9/11, and I have never seen the relationship so strained and so fraught as I did when I was there 10 days ago. I really got the sense that the Americans were running out of patience for the double game. We've been lavishing the Pakistani state with billions of dollars in aid. I think we're currently running at about $3 billion a year, in exchange for their operation in helping us fight the Taliban and capture al-Qaida people. And the Pakistanis do that, and they do a lot of it.

But at the very same time, they support - and this is documented. This is not disputable anymore. They support groups in the Taliban and insurgent groups that are killing American soldiers. And so that double game has caused such extraordinary frustration. And I guess I've never had the sense - as I did when I was in Pakistan this last time - that American patience for this was finally running out. And I think that the dilemma with Pakistan is it's too big to fail.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FILKINS: And at the same time, you have, you know, this very aggressive CIA program with the predator drones, which is killing a lot of people. It's killing a lot of militants. It's somewhat debatable how many civilians it's killing. But the overwhelming perception in Pakistan is that, you know, the Americans are massacring civilians. And so there's a lot of anger on that side, as well. So relationship right now is just - I've never seen it so bad.

And I don't know - I mean, the problem here in Pakistan is the same as the problem in Afghanistan, which is it's a terrible situation, but it's easy to imagine it getting worse. And that's the problem with Pakistan, that if you walk away from it - which, you know, would provide everybody with a lot of emotional satisfaction...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FILKINS: ...the state could collapse. And this is a country of 200 million people sitting on a huge nuclear arsenal. And so the consequences of failure are just enormous, and that's the dilemma.

INSKEEP: Dexter Filkins of The New Yorker magazine, thanks very much.

Mr. FILKINS: Thank you, sir.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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