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Osama's death raises questions
While bin Laden's death may not immediately impact the war in Afghanistan, it rekindles doubts on Pakistan's sincerity.
Last Modified: 04 May 2011 08:14
Afghans watch the news in a Kabul TV shop, amid ongoing tension with neighbouring Pakistan [GALLO/GETTY]

In Kabul, the news of Osama bin Laden's death has, more than anything, brought questions. Questions about what the end of al-Qaeda's leader means to the ongoing war and the Taliban's launch of a new fighting season. But most importantly, it has raised resounding questions about the nature of Pakistan's cooperation in the "war on terror".

"They didn't find Osama in Logar, they didn't find him in Kandahar," declared Afghan president Hamid Karzai. "They didn’t find him in Badakhsahn, in Kabul or in Parwan. They found him in Abbotabad, in Pakistan," he said.

Although president Karzai made sure he included a word of appreciation for the sacrifices of NATO and the United States, the frustration in his tone was clear. "NATO and the world did not hear our call for ten years," he said. "We burned and burned. Osama was killed in Abbotabad."

The town of Abbotabad, where Mr bin Laden was killed, is home to Pakistan's military academy. According to Hassan Abbas, professor of South Asian politics and security at Columbia University who lived there in the early 1980s, there is a security zone of about 5km around the academy, where surveillance is high. "The house was only about two miles from the military academy, clearly within the security radius," Mr Abbas told Al Jazeera.

In recent times, military installations in particular have been the target of frequent attacks by insurgents and terrorist groups. "This should have been more reason for increasing security around the military academy, and the house should have been checked, given the high walls and barbed wire," said Mr Abbas.

Afghan-Pakistan relations

In his reaction to the death, Karzai - and his government - has made sure to stress the proximity of the town to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The tone in his speech yesterday was reminiscent of the early years of the "war on terror", when the Karzai government assiduously criticised the Pakistani military establishment - particularly the ISI - for not doing enough to go after al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Frustrated and exhausted by the fact that his allies could not assert enough pressure on Pakistan, Karzai reconsidered his approach in recent years. He stopped publicly criticising Pakistan and instead tried reaching out to them in the hope of finding a regional solution to the war.

Yesterday, while Karzai spoke of the Pakistani people's suffering due to terrorism, there was nothing in his speech about the Pakistani government. Instead, he used the opportunity to recall his old message that had not received the attention he might have wanted it to.

"I hope that, from now on, the United States and the West take what the people of Afghanistan say as a truth," he declared.

Ali Ahmad Jalali, former interior minister in Karzai's cabinet, said the killing of Osama was "a wake up call" to Pakistan. "The proximity of the house to Islamabad shows that Pakistan can do much more in this war," he said.

Challenges remain

Some analysts believe that the nature of Osama's killing provides an ample opportunity to shift the focus once again to Pakistan.  It is time that Pakistan's "state-sponsored terrorism", as one analyst put it, is dealt with more decisively, they say.

"We should utilise this momentous achievement to address the remaining challenges," Dr Davood Moradian, former senior policy adviser to the Afghan foreign minister, told Al Jazeera.

"To this end, the ISI must be declared a terrorist entity."

He and many others point to the threat that a nuclear-armed Pakistan presents when its intelligence agency is reluctant in going after terrorist groups.

"We eliminated the most important and symbolic person in the phenomenon of terrorism," says Dr Moradian, "but the three important factors are still out there: the ideology, the infrastructure and the conducive environment." He believes that, unless the international community deals with ISI's relationship with groups such as al-Qaeda, the threat will remain. "If not, the international community will have to come back next time, as was the case in 2001."

However, it is unlikely that the Karzai government will dramatically change its current relationship with Pakistan, which has been a major factor in their formula for reconciling with the Taliban.

"His death might bring a wave of revenge attacks on Afghans and security might deteriorate," says Hawal Alam Nooristani, a member of the High Council for Peace, the group designated to explore talks with the Taliban. "But what this proved was that Pakistan’s two-faced politics has yet to end."

The impact of the death on the war

Many in Afghanistan believe that the killing of Osama, though a huge morale booster for NATO and its allies, will not have much impact on the on going war in the country. In recent years, bin Laden had been mostly preoccupied with avoiding capture. In the process, much of the work had been delegated to his subordinates.

"This is a psychological victory," says former minister Jalali, "but operationally, it will not have much impact. Al Qaeda is more decentralised and Osama really wasn't in charge recently," he says.

Others point to the fact that, in recent years, al-Qaeda has played a small role in Afghanistan and local armed groups have dominated the insurgency.

"That the leadership of al-Qaeda is in Pakistan is only half of the reality," says Dr Mahiudeen Mahdi, a member of the Afghan parliament from the northern province of Baghlan. "The daily threat inside Afghanistan has almost always been from the Afghan Taliban."

Sanjar Sohail, publisher of the prominent daily newspaper 8-Subh, agrees that Osama's death will have an important "psychological impact" on al-Qaeda and groups who follow their ideology.

But Sohail is concerned that the dramatic death will fast-track a hasty withdrawal out of Afghanistan.

"Already, there are calls from Iran and Pakistan that the United Sates has no excuse to be in Afghanistan anymore," says Mr. Sohail. "Also, president Karzai's comments indicate that he is not interested in continuing this fight in Afghanistan."

The death of Osama comes at a time when the Afghan government has intensified its efforts for reconciliation with the Taliban. Some believe that this presents an opportunity for the Taliban to distance themselves from al-Qaeda on the basis that their relationship was with Osama bin Laden and not al-Qaeda's ideology. President Karzai, by virtue of calling on the Taliban a further time in the same speech that he announced the death of Osama, has shown the government's interest in tapping this opportunity. Whether some Taliban will take that up or not, only time will tell.

"I guess the Taliban are now trying to figure out how to position themselves," says Martine van Bijlert, the co-director of Afghanistan Analysts Network. "They will want to use the mobilising potential of bin Laden's death, but they will also want to leave their position vis-a-vis al-Qaeda sufficiently ambiguous to keep all future options open."

Sohail thinks that the Taliban might begin presenting "green lights" to keep the government interested. "They will want a gradual desensitisation of their image in the public perception by 2014," which is the scheduled date for NATO withdrawal.

But in the short term, the death of Osama is unlikely to affect the intensity of the war in Afghanistan.

"I suspect that the violence this summer will continue at a similar pace as might have been expected before bin Laden's death," says Alex Strick van Linschoten, co-author of An Enemy We Created, the forthcoming book on the Taliban's ties with al-Qaeda. He has lived in Kandahar for the past few years. "It is perhaps significant, though, in offering Obama a chance to recalibrate US operations inside Afghanistan."

Mr Mahdi, however, is concerned about how Karzai might use this in his "desperate" efforts to reconcile with the Taliban. "Karzai has been trying to promote the idea that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are separate entities," he says. "I am afraid this presents his government with an opportunity to hide the Taliban from the world view." 

Mujib Mashal is a journalist based between Kabul and New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @mujibmashal

Source:
Al Jazeera
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