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.

Tom A. Peter/Special to TCSM
Rangeen Kaman, a barber in Kabul, says he's sad to hear that Osama bin Laden died because he was a fellow Muslim. But beyond that, he doesn't care about anything bin Laden stood for.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

As the Afghanistan war heats up with the launch of the Taliban's spring offensive, so does talk among foreign-policy experts about how long American support for it will last now that Osama bin Laden is dead.

Yet there are few indications that even with the Al Qaeda mastermind behind 9/11 out of the picture, the security situation in Afghanistan will improve.

In recent days, Taliban militants attacked security forces in Nuristan Province, wounding six policemen. A NATO airstrike reportedly killed seven Taliban in Nangarhar Province early on May 4, and on May 3 an International Security Assistance Force soldier died in a roadside bomb attack in eastern Afghanistan.

"It's possible that fighting will continue at least in the short- to medium-term, and in that regard one can say that the death of bin Laden isn't going to significantly bring down those levels of fighting," says Farzana Shaikh, an associate fellow for the Asia Program at Chatham House, a London think tank.

Though the Taliban and Al Qaeda are sometimes lumped together in the West, the two have key ideological differences and competing goals. The Taliban are focused on national insurgency, while Al Qaeda is more interested in global jihad.

Al Qaeda's footprint in Afghanistan has also decreased markedly since NATO forces invaded in 2001. Some estimates now place the number of Al Qaeda operatives here at less than 100 fighters. And the group has come to increasingly rely on the Afghan Taliban organization for its survival, 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 demoralize, 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.

After nearly 10 years of war and thousands of civilian and military deaths, average Afghans also question whether Mr. bin Laden's death will change anything.

"When he arrived here it was good when he fought the Russians, but suddenly everything changed and he was the opposite of what he was before," says Saleem, a bicycle repairman in Kabul. "Maybe [his death] will help, maybe it won't. He was only one person and the insurgents come from everywhere."

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.

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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