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Why bin Laden killing won't dampen Afghan fight

Even though the Taliban has ties with Al Qaeda, the Afghan militants are focused on fighting a national insurgency, not waging global jihad.

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One area where the bin Laden operation could have a sharp impact is in the ability of the Afghan Taliban's leadership to operate somewhat freely, say many Taliban observers. Key figures wanted by the US are believed to be hiding in Pakistan and may now worry that they are next on America's hit list.

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US drone strikes have killed scores of militants in Pakistan, but most were Al Qaeda or Pakistani Taliban, a different group than the Afghan Taliban. Since 2003, only two members of the Afghan Taliban's senior leadership council have been killed by foreign forces.

Prior to his assassination, bin Laden managed to keep his location secret, whereas Tali­ban leaders have stayed in the open more, occasionally speaking to journalists and maintaining contact with Afghan government officials. "If the CIA can catch bin Laden, it's surely not too hard to find the senior Tali­ban leadership, especially if journalists can find them," says Alex Strick van Linschoten, an independent researcher based in Kandahar.

Indeed, speaking to the Monitor by phone just one day after the US Navy SEAL team killed bin Laden, a mid-level Taliban commander based in Pakistan broke off mid-sentence, worried that foreign forces might be able to trace his location.

Even as spring fighting intensifies, the knockout of bin Laden will shape conditions for talks. Pakistan is a key player, and most observers say it can bring the Taliban to the table. Much will depend on whether the US and Pakistan can work together after the bin Laden killing. Another key factor is whether the Tali­ban will use bin Laden's death as an opportunity to cut ties with Al Qaeda. In addition to accepting the Afghan Constitution and renouncing violence, that is a precondition for Afghan and NATO talks with the Taliban.

The close relationship between bin Laden and the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, was seen as a central reason for the group's continued support of Al Qaeda. But even without bin Laden, breaking ties remains highly unlikely. Maintaining official ties with Al Qaeda provides the Taliban with important credibility among jihadist groups in addition to access to training and Arab funding.

"The Taliban are very much concerned about the general public opinion," says Hamid Mir, a Pakistani journalist and independent analyst. "Some of them say that 'We cannot give an impression to the Afghan or Pashtun masses that we are making any deals with the United States or that we are under pressure.' They are sure that in three or four years they will defeat the United States."

Still, there may be some factions willing to break ties. "Those who asked Mullah Omar to hand over bin Laden and save the Islamic Emirate in 2001 will probably ask Mullah Omar again to break ties with Al Qaeda," says Mohammed Hashim Watanwal, a member of parliament from Uruzgan Province. "If he doesn't, maybe they will quit the movement and sit down for talks with the government."

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