US seeks to balance message on bin Laden death

WASHINGTON (AP) — The United States calls Osama bin Laden’s death a potential “game changer” in Afghanistan, but has also begun to modulate its message for fear that runaway optimism will create pressure to suddenly exit a war still up for grabs.

The top U.S. commander in eastern Afghanistan sought to walk that fine line Tuesday. Army Maj. Gen. John Campbell told reporters at the Pentagon that he sees great potential for bin Laden’s death to draw dispirited Taliban fighters away from the insurgency.

Videos of bin Laden that were captured in the raid on his compound and released by the U.S. government on Saturday depict a gray-bearded bin Laden wrapped in a blanket, watching himself on TV. Campbell described him as “alone and desperate” and said the image could send a powerful message to Taliban fighters who bear the brunt of combat while their leaders hide in Pakistan.

“I think the insurgents are going to see this and say, ‘Hey, why am I doing this?’” Campbell said.

As President Barack Obama nears a decision on the size and pace of U.S. troop withdrawals that he has promised will begin in July, the administration is hopeful that the elimination of bin Laden will deal a wider psychological blow to the Taliban and other insurgent groups associated with al-Qaida. But it believes that a sudden troop pullout would risk losing the war.

In a Congress struggling to reduce the deficit, war-weary lawmakers are clamoring for the U.S. to shrink its presence in Afghanistan. The war tab for American taxpayers now stands at $10 billion a month as the conflict approaches the 10-year mark. Bin Laden’s death, widely cheered in the U.S. as a historic achievement, has given stronger voice to those calling for troop withdrawals.

“Osama Bin Laden’s death was more than a critical triumph in our fight against terrorism. It 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,” Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, told a hearing Tuesday.

Kerry rejected a “precipitous withdrawal” but argued for working toward “the smallest footprint necessary, a presence that puts Afghans in charge — and presses them to step up to that task — at the same time that it secures our interests and accomplishes our mission of destroying al-Qaida and preventing Afghanistan from ever again becoming a terrorist sanctuary.”

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said he hopes Obama decides to pull out a significant number of troops this summer. But he said calls for all troops to leave by a fixed deadline are not supported by a majority of Democrats in Congress.

“I’ve urged the president to have a significant drawdown in July because it’s supposed to be a message of urgency to the Afghans as to taking responsibility for their own security and it’s not going to be an urgent message if it’s not significant,” Levin said.

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