Osama bin Laden's death: What it means for Taliban fight

The Taliban say Osama bin Laden's death won't affect them. But assessments are mixed.

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
An Afghan youth walks past by a television announcing the death of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden at a television-selling market in Kabul, Afghanistan on Monday, May 2.

Afghanistan's Taliban, who once gave refuge to Osama Bin Laden, say that the Al Qaeda leader's death today will not damage their battle readiness. But officials and analysts give mixed assessments of whether militant operations will be thwarted going forward – and say that the news at the very least is likely to dent morale among both Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

“It’s a big loss for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but the fight will continue in his absence and the insurgency work will go on. Even if there is just one Talib or Al Qaeda fighter is left, they will die fighting,” says a Taliban member who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons.

Intelligence sources located Bin Laden’s compound in the city of Abbottabad, less than a kilometer from the Pakistan Military Academy, the Islamic nation’s equivalent to West Point. Following a shootout and an American helicopter crash, US forces reportedly took custody of Bin Laden’s body, which officials say was later given a proper Islamic burial at sea.

“Of course we are human and we have feelings. At one moment, we feel like it shouldn’t have happened, but overall I think this was a great chance for him to get martyrdom,” says another Taliban fighter in Pakistan who maintains ties with Al Qaeda fighters. Still, he adds, “ [Bin Laden’s death] will never affect the operations of Al Qaeda or the Taliban."

Ideological differences between Taliban, Al Qaeda

Though the Taliban and Al Qaeda are sometimes lumped together as the same among some in the West, the two have major ideological differences and maintained competing goals. The Taliban are more focused on a national insurgency in Afghanistan, while Al Qaeda is more interested in global jihad.

Additionally, Al Qaeda’s footprint in Afghanistan has decreased markedly since NATO forces invaded the country in 2001 at the beginning of the US war on terror. Some estimates now place the number of Al Qaeda operatives here below 100 fighters. And the group has come to increasingly rely on the Afghan Taliban organization for its survival here, rather than the other way around.

“I don’t think it’s going to have any impact on the Taliban. I don’t think Osama’s death is going to either demoralize them, or persuade, or provoke them to take their revenge. Their fight is different,” says Rahimullah Yusufzai, an independent analyst and editor of Pakistan’s The News International.

Ties between Al Qaeda and the Taliban

While the groups differed ideologically, Bin Laden had a close relationship with Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s top leader. Without a personal connection among the top leaders, the Taliban may feel less obligated to support Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

“In Afghanistan, the real battle is now between the foreign forces and Taliban, and to a small extent other groups. It’s no longer a fight between Al Qaeda and NATO forces. That was very obvious from the beginning,” says Mr. Yusufzai.

Still, security officials in Afghanistan say that Al Qaeda provided military and strategic aid to the Taliban, so the death of Bin Laden could hurt the group’s capabilities over time.

Bin Laden’s ability to avoid death or capture for well over a decade, made him a symbol of inspiration for many of those who took up arms against the US and other Western militaries. His targeted assassination, which comes amid a deadly campaign against Taliban leadership, will likely bolster the credibility of Western forces as a lethal adversary among insurgent forces here.

“As a whole, it is a very big blow to the Taliban and Al Qaeda especially. Taliban leaders will also believe that their number will come very soon and they will be targeted, killed, or arrested,” says Lutfullah Mashal, spokesman for National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence service. “Most of the insurgent-related activities in Afghanistan were supported, managed, or led by Al Qaeda.”

There is much speculation that Bin Laden’s No. 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, will replace Al Qaeda’s fallen leader. Taliban members say the Egyptian-born al-Zawahri, who has long acted as the group's chief ideologue, has a reputation for preferring more violent methods than his predecessor.

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