With bin Laden gone, where to now for the Taleban?

Osama bin Laden
Osama bin Laden

While Osama bin Laden's death may have little immediate impact on the Afghanistan war, it could bring a political solution closer by opening the door for Western talks with the Taleban, say experts.

The killing of the Al-Qaeda kingpin by US commandos could create enough political capital and space for foreign powers led by the US to "pivot towards a comprehensive political settlement", as one academic put it.

But this looks unlikely to lead to foreign forces pulling out any faster than currently intended - limited combat troop withdrawals are due to start in July and a full drawdown is expected in 2014.

US-led forces invaded Afghanistan with fanfare in the wake of the September 11 attacks, accusing the Taleban of harbouring bin Laden and other Al-Qaeda leaders.

But Western public hostility to the war has grown over the past decade amid mounting troop deaths in recent years.

Some now question whether the war should continue now that bin Laden is dead.

"I don't think the death of bin Laden will directly impact the fighting capabilities of any of the parties engaged in the war in Afghanistan," said Martine van Biljert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network think tank.

"I don't think the US administration plans to use bin Laden's death to orchestrate a speedy retreat from Afghanistan, but they may not be able to control where public opinion takes them."

Afghan defence ministry spokesman Mohammad Zahir Azimi said he was expecting "retaliation attacks in the short term" following the killing, before a longer-term stabilisation of the conflict.

But the decapitation of Al-Qaeda's command could be more significant in the longer term if Western powers take the opportunity to push reconciliation efforts with the Taleban to a new level.

"Bin Laden's death creates a new opportunity to begin real negotiations," wrote Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former senior State Department official and current Princeton professor, in Foreign Policy magazine.

"The United States has already made clear that bin Laden's death is not the end of the war in Afghanistan.

"But it should now mark this moment as the beginning of the end, a moment that allows the coalition to pivot towards a comprehensive political settlement that will bring security and stability to Afghanistan".

That could give fresh impetus to efforts that started last year when Afghan President Hamid Karzai tasked a peace council with finding ways to reconcile with Taleban elements, though there have been few signs of progress yet.

The United States has made overtures to the Taleban in recent months about the reconciliation process.

And soon after bin Laden's killing, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the Taleban: "You cannot defeat us. But you can make the choice to abandon Al-Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process."

However, despite such calls and the US's rationale for launching the Afghanistan war nearly a decade ago, links between the Afghan Taleban and Al-Qaeda are limited, argued Thomas Ruttig of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

He said there were no Afghans among the attackers on 9/11 and none in Al-Qaeda's leadership.

Nor does the Afghan Taleban need to rely on Al-Qaeda, deriving its support instead from the presence of foreign forces in Afghanistan and widespread state corruption, he added.

Nevertheless, the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says it has killed more than 25 Al-Qaeda figures in Afghanistan in the last five weeks.

"In jihadist terms, Al-Qaeda concentrates on the far enemy, i.e. the US and its allies on their own soil, while the Taleban fight the near enemy, the occupiers of Afghan Muslim land," Ruttig said.

He also indicated that elements within the militant Islamists already had an eye on talks with the West ahead of a possible return to power in the years ahead after foreign troops leave.

"They (the Taleban) do not want to repeat their pre-9/11 mistake and risk complete isolation from the international community in case they return to power or participate in it at a time when Western interest in Afghanistan will have largely subsided," he said.

For the moment, though, the Afghan Taleban's message to the US and other Western powers is still decidedly hostile.

The group has cast doubt on bin Laden's death, putting out a statement saying it was "premature" to comment on the news because "the Americans have not provided convincing documents to prove their claim".

- AFP

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