Taliban attacks and warnings of a stepped-up offensive following the death of Osama bin Laden may damp U.S. hopes that the al-Qaeda leader’s death will encourage the militants to negotiate an end to the Afghanistan war.
Bin Laden’s “martyrdom” will give a “new impetus” to the Taliban’s fight, the movement said May 9 in a statement on the Ansar Al-Jihad website it uses for announcements. The declaration coincided with the group’s most ambitious attacks this year, including a two-day battle in Kandahar, the country’s second-biggest city, which killed 19 people.
U.S. leaders have said bin Laden’s death underscores their message to his former Taliban hosts that they should abandon violence and embrace negotiations. That’s unlikely, say analysts and former Taliban members, who point to the group’s commitment to expelling foreign forces and desire to prove that its military capability remains undiminished.
“His demise might damage the Taliban’s morale, but it doesn’t mean they will stop fighting,” said Abdulhakim Mujahid, a diplomat in the Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime, who serves on President Hamid Karzai’s council seeking peace talks. “You see they are conducting dramatic operations nationwide after his death,” Mujahid said by phone in Kabul.
After U.S. commandos killed bin Laden May 2 in the Pakistani town of Abbottabad, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Islamabad, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the al-Qaeda leader’s death may add “even greater resonance” to America’s advice to the Taliban that “you can make the choice to abandon al-Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process.”
‘Robust’ Troop Cut
Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters bin Laden’s death strengthens the chances for a “robust,” rather than symbolic, reduction of U.S. troops in Afghanistan from July. President Barack Obama says the U.S. will keep combat forces in Afghanistan until 2014, handing security duties to the Afghan police and army forces America helps train.
The Obama administration hopes bin Laden’s death “might encourage some Taliban members to view their situation differently in terms of the reconciliation efforts led by President Karzai,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said yesterday on ABC television. “That’s, obviously, informed speculation,” he said.
While Karzai has asked Turkey and Saudi Arabia to help broker reconciliation, Taliban spokesmen say the movement will consider peace talks only when U.S.-led NATO troops withdraw and Afghans are running their own country.
The U.S., which the iCasualties tracking group says has had 1,571 soldiers killed in Afghanistan, formally endorses Karzai’s efforts to seek peace with the Taliban who accept the country’s 2004 constitution.
Bin Laden’s death won’t move the Taliban toward talks, said Waheed Mujda, who was part of the al-Qaeda leader’s camp in the 1980s war against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. While the Taliban offered bin Laden shelter after his 1996 expulsion from Sudan, the nine-year-old war sparked by the Sept. 11 attacks led them gradually “to abandon al-Qaeda and fight in their own land against forces they see as non-Muslim occupiers,” Mujda said by phone in Kabul.
The discovery of America’s most wanted man in a Pakistani military town has given the U.S. leverage in its already strained relations with Pakistan, said Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan and Pakistan programs at the non-partisan United States Institute of Peace in Washington.
Leaders of Pakistan’s army, which Afghanistan says continues to back the Taliban, “could use their influence over Afghan Taliban based in Pakistan to push them to come to the negotiating table,” Wilder said.
The Taliban arose during the 1990s among rural mullahs and religious students in the ethnic Pashtun homeland of southern Afghanistan and western Pakistan. As warlords who had emerged during the anti-Soviet fight began battling each other, the Taliban seized power with covert support from Pakistan’s army, according to scholars such as Husain Haqqani, now Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington.
Thousands of Afghans, mostly from non-Pashtun central and northern regions, rallied May 5 in Kabul to protest reconciliation, further complicating Karzai’s peace overtures.
Karzai, a southern Pashtun, often refers to the Taliban as misguided “brothers,” urging them to stop fighting and join the political process. He agreed last month with Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to step up cooperation in seeking an eventual peace deal with the Taliban.
At last week’s rally, northerners such as Karzai’s former intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, an ethnic Tajik, called the Taliban “terrorists” with whom no deal should be made.
Saleh accused the Pakistan military of secretly backing the Taliban in an attempt to dominate Afghanistan. Pakistan should be excluded from efforts to settle the Afghan war, he said.
Karzai, who was backed by the U.S. after its forces ousted the Taliban in 2001, has lost public support. His government has been unable to provide security or jobs and is seen as corrupt, according to opinion surveys such as the one published in July by the Gallup polling organization. He relies on foreign aid for 90 percent of the country’s budget, the World Bank says.
The Taliban say their spring offensive will undercut U.S. claims to have weakened them in the south. Two days after security forces regained control of Kandahar, hundreds of Taliban attacked May 10 in northeastern Nuristan province, on the border with Pakistan.
The Taliban’s raids “are aimed at showing the world that the surge by NATO has not harmed their ability to attack throughout the country,” said Haroun Mir, director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies.