In encounters with troops in Afghanistan this past week, the question Defense Secretary Robert Gates heard more than any other was this: What does Osama bin Laden's death mean for the war?
Soldiers on the front lines of a conflict that began when many were pre-teens seemed to be wondering: Must we keep fighting and dying in this country if the terrorist who was the reason we came here is dead?
Gates said emphatically, yes, because Afghanistan could yet again revert to a haven for terrorists bent on perpetrating another 9/11 attack.
But it's a question that hangs over an intensifying debate in Washington about charting the next steps in a war, now in its 10th year, that is growing more costly and less popular among the American public and in Congress.
The bin Laden factor arguably has put Gates and other advocates of sticking to the current war strategy on the defensive. Although he is retiring June 30, Gates clearly is not shying away from a Washington policy debate that will come to a head this month with President Barack Obama's decision on how many troops to withdraw in July and, perhaps, how quickly to pull out the rest of the 30,000 "surge'" forces the commander in chief sent here last year.
There are now 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan _ three times the total when Obama took office in January 2009.
A budget-cutting mood in Congress, coupled with the imminence of the first troop withdrawals, has left Gates pitching a stay-the-course argument: It will take some months more to see how bin Laden's death in Pakistan might affect the Taliban in Afghanistan. In the meantime it would be premature to let up on U.S.-led combat offensives that have begun to put the Taliban on their heels. Keeping up the military pressure may, by winter, yield a true breakthrough: a Taliban leadership willing to enter serious peace talks.
Others in the Obama administration, however, are pushing behind the scenes for an accelerated wrap-up of the troop-intensive counterinsurgency campaign. Many in Congress are making a similar case.
It's clear where Gates stands. At a U.S. base called Sharana on a bleak and barren stretch of land in remote Paktika province, not far from the Pakistan border, a soldier on Monday asked what bin Laden's demise meant for U.S. strategy.
"It's too early to tell what the impact of bin Laden's death is on the situation here in Afghanistan," Gates replied. "I think we'll have a better idea by the end of the year." In the meantime, he said later, "We shouldn't let up on the gas too much _ at least for the next few months."
Given that bin Laden and the top Afghan Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, were "very close, personally," Gates said, more Taliban members may be wondering what's to be gained by keeping up their alliance with al-Qaida.
"So, my hope is that if we can keep the military pressure up through the remainder of this year, keep what we've captured from these guys in the south, and keep this up, and they see that they are not going to win, that then increases the opportunity for" a peace settlement, he said.
"But I don't expect it to make much difference here in Afghanistan, in the short term," he said.
Peace talks are in their infancy, at best, without clear negotiating partners with whom the Afghans, with U.S. backing, would start to cut a deal.
Army Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, the No. 2 U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told reporters Monday he agrees with Gates' assessment. "We have not seen any effects on the ground yet," from bin Laden's demise, he said.
There are relatively few al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan; they are located mainly in Pakistan, although they support the Taliban and other insurgents who are fighting U.S. and Afghan government forces. That is one point stressed by those in the administration who believe the U.S. should scale back its military presence and focus more _ if not exclusively _ on hunting down al-Qaida leaders rather than investing heavily in helping Kabul improve governance of the war-weary country.
Gates sees the bin Laden question from an unique perspective. He was deputy national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush in 1989 when Soviet forces withdrew from Afghanistan, ending an almost decade-long war. The Americans covertly armed the anti-Soviet Afghan forces during the 1980s, then walked away to leave Afghanistan on its own, figuring the country no longer held strategic importance for the U.S. or the West.
Looking back, Gates said Saturday at a Kabul news conference, "That tragic miscalculation was exposed by the attacks of September 11, 2001."
Gates argues that a rush to the exits now could again backfire on the United States, although bin Laden's al-Qaida has been weakened considerably in the years since hijacked airplanes struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The bin Laden question arose again when Gates stopped on Monday at Combat Outpost Andar, in the eastern province of Gazni, where a soldier asked: "How does the death of Osama bin Laden affect us out here?"
Gates responded by noting that a commander in southern Helmand province, when asked a similar question a day earlier, had told reporters that bin Laden's death "has been noted," by ordinary Afghans. "But it hasn't made much difference."
Robert Burns can be reached at http://twitter.com/robertburnsAP