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US general: contact with Pakistan cut off briefly

The death of Osama bin Laden could turn around the Afghanistan war by hastening a political settlement with the Taliban, although it is too early to halt U.S. combat involvement, a senior U.S. lawmaker and a top commander said Tuesday.

“I think there is great potential for many of the insurgents to say, hey, I want to reintegrate” into Afghan society by laying down arms and renouncing terrorism, Army Maj. Gen. John Campbell told reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters in eastern Afghanistan.

Videos released by the U.S. government on Saturday depicting a gray-bearded bin Laden wrapped in a blanket, watching himself on TV — Campbell described him as “alone and desperate” — could send a powerful message to dispirited rank-and-file Taliban fighters, he said.

“I think the insurgents are going to see this and say, hey, why am I doing this,” he said. Campbell, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, is responsible for military operations throughout eastern Afghanistan, along a 450-mile border with Pakistan.

On Capitol Hill, Sen. John Kerry said bin Laden’s death could prove to be more than a triumph over a terrorist leader.

“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,” the Massachusetts Democrat said at the outset of a hearing on steps needed to shift security responsibility in Afghanistan from U.S. and NATO forces to a capable Afghan government.

This comes as President Barack Obama faces an important decision soon on the size and pace of U.S. troop withdrawals from Afghanistan beginning in July. Bin Laden’s death added a new element to the calculus on how a drawdown should be executed.

Campbell and Kerry both urged caution.

“Let me be very clear:  A precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a mistake and I, for one, would take that option off the table,” Kerry said. “Instead, we should be working toward the smallest footprint necessary, a presence that puts Afghans in charge – and presses them to step up to that task.”

Asked about possible U.S. troop withdrawals from his area of responsibility, Campbell declined to discuss specifics. Officials have said Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has yet to submit his recommendations on troop withdrawals to the Pentagon.

Campbell was emphatic, however, that the bin Laden death should not lead to a sudden U.S. pullout.

“I don’t think the war is over,” Campbell said. He said bin Laden’s death has had little immediate impact in eastern Afghanistan.

Campbell said U.S. and NATO communication with the Pakistani military along the Afghan border was cut off for a couple of days after the U.S. raid on bin Laden’s Pakistan compound, but contact has since been restored.