WASHINGTON — The killing of Osama bin Laden has reignited a debate over how best to fight Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism, strengthening the position of those who argue U.S. strategy should rely on targeted strikes against militant leaders in places like Pakistan rather than send tens of thousands of American troops to wage war in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden's death not only emboldened key political leaders to challenge President Obama's commitment to high numbers of ground troops in the nearly 10-year-old Afghan war, it prompted others to reconsider their support for a strategy that is costing billions of dollars a year yet has failed to eradicate the Taliban insurgency against Afghanistan's American-backed government.
The Obama administration's position was further undermined by congressional fury over what many Americans see as the duplicity of Pakistan, an ally that receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid yet was unable -- or unwilling -- to spot Bin Laden as he hid in its midst.
Rep. Tim Griffin (R-Ark.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said that although he continues to weigh his stance on the Afghan strategy, he was impressed by the mission that led to Bin Laden's death.
"You get a better result by using focused forces in a tactical way like this, and you're able to root out bad actors such as Osama bin Laden," Griffin said.
The administration has argued that stabilizing Afghanistan is key to defeating Al Qaeda, and is waiting to see whether its gamble on a time-limited troop buildup will deliver the battlefield victories to achieve it. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan was the haven from which Bin Laden planned the Sept. 11 attacks. And though almost all Al Qaeda fighters have since sought sanctuary in the tribal regions of neighboring Pakistan, the administration remains deeply vested in building an Afghan state that can keep them out.
The friction arises over how that goal is best accomplished. Administration and congressional officials have argued for two years whether to pursue a narrow counter-terrorism approach in Afghanistan or a more expensive and troop-intensive counterinsurgency approach, with the latter winning out so far.
But the current strategy has yielded slow, if any, progress at a cost of $2 billion a week, and the American public is increasingly weary of the fighting. A growing number of officials in the administration and Congress support the alternative approach, including some from Republican ranks that have long boasted the most ardent supporters of the troop buildup.
"This will cause a significant number of people, members of Congress and the general public, to say let's refocus our mission," said Rep. Timothy V. Johnson (R-Ill.), a critic of Afghan war policy.
The death of Bin Laden also comes at a moment when the balance of power within the administration has shifted toward those who favor a new approach.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, the architect and most high-profile proponent of the current troop-based strategy, is being shifted from his post as senior commander in Afghanistan to head the CIA.
Leon E. Panetta, a skeptic of the current strategy, has gained leverage as the incoming head at the Pentagon, replacing Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, a leading voice for the troop buildup.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton remains a prominent defender of the buildup and the existing plans to keep large numbers of U.S. forces in Afghanistan until 2014.
"We will continue taking the fight to Al Qaeda and their Taliban allies, while working to support the Afghan people as they build a stronger government and begin taking responsibility for their own security," Clinton said.
But an administration official, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to comment, acknowledged that "there are more voices for a change," and said officials were again reviewing the U.S. policy as they weighed the extent of an initial troop reduction scheduled for July.
Bin Laden's death "will certainly strengthen the arguments of those who want to shift strategies," said James Lindsay, a National Security Council aide in the Clinton administration who now is research director for the Council on Foreign Relations. Obama, who is still considering how many troops to withdraw this summer, now has "a political opening" to remove a large number, he said.
The politics of the war are also driven by public fatigue in the U.S. with a conflict that shows no sign of ending soon.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a House Intelligence Committee member, predicted that the Bin Laden killing would alter public opinion and "accelerate our shift" to a new strategy. "If our object is to go after high-ranking Al Qaeda members, and those people are more present in Pakistan, then that may call for a different strategy," he said.