Conflict & Justice

After bin Laden, Afghanistan looks no closer to peace


U.S. soldiers in Zabul, Afghanistan walk to meet with village elders on May 27, 2011.


Brian Ferguson

Editor's note: The killing of Osama bin Laden has changed everything. Or has it? In this ongoing series Al Qaeda: What's Next?, GlobalPost senior correspondents worldwide investigate the uncertain future of global terrorism and religious extremism – from Afghanistan to Egypt and Tunisia, India, China, Africa, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet republics and beyond.

KABUL, Afghanistan — In the immediate aftermath of Osama bin Laden’s death, many predicted a fierce and furious response from the Afghan Taliban. The conventional wisdom was that the insurgency would surely retaliate for the loss of the Al Qaeda leader.

This did not happen.

The Taliban continued with a previously announced spring offensive, Operation Badar, aimed at demoralizing the Afghan government and unsettling NATO. Far from taking revenge, the insurgents barely reacted to the raid on Abbottabad.

It was nearly a week before the Taliban issued an official statement. In it, they made no angry threats, no bombastic promises of retribution. Instead, the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” as the Taliban call themselves, praised bin Laden for his contribution to the jihad against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and extended condolences to his family.

As always, the Taliban remained focused on their own problem: getting the foreign forces out of Afghanistan.

“The Islamic Emirate believes the martyrdom of Sheikh Osama bin Laden will give a new impetus to the current Jihad against the invaders in this critical phase,” ended the statement.

Whatever happens in the rest of the world, experts say, the death of bin Laden is not likely to be deeply felt in Afghanistan. The conflict here, they say, has its own momentum.

“The Taliban insurgency is, as we know indigenous,” said author and researcher Felix Kuehn, whose book "An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban / Al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010,” co-authored with Alex Strick van Linschoten, will be published this spring.

“While much of the leadership resides in Pakistan, the fighters are locals, motivated by a host of grievances,” Kuehn said. “The death of Osama bin Laden will have little effect on the local insurgents, the Taliban field commanders and their operations here.”

There has been much talk of the links between Al Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, but the groups have traditionally had widely differing philosophies and goals.

This is not to say that they could not move toward each other. In fact, van Linschoten said, the aggressive U.S.-led military campaigns that have decimated the Taliban’s mid-level leadership over the past year might be pushing the Taliban right into Al Qaeda’s arms.

The younger commanders who are replacing the more seasoned fighters might be more ideologically susceptible to Al Qaeda’s blandishments, he argued. They have known nothing but war in their lives, and have a much more tenuous connection to their homeland.

“I think it very worrying the way foreign fighters are trying to use the ongoing conflict to win their way back to the Afghan insurgents,” van Linschoten said. “The prospect of lower-ranking fighters among the Afghan Taliban becoming more ideological is extremely concerning — not for the short-term, but over the next five or 10 years.”

This long-range concern is unlikely to carry much weight in the current debate over tactics and strategy, however. The death of bin Laden has accelerated calls for an end to the war, especially in the United States.

On March 27, 2009, President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda.” With the removal of bin Laden, many are asking what more is left to be done.

Many analysts, including CIA chief Leon Panetta, have concluded that Al Qaeda has between 50 and 100 operatives left in Afghanistan. The 100,000 troops and over $100 billion per year devoted to the war in Afghanistan might appear to be overkill, especially with the U.S. economy in crisis.

Although U.S. officials were at some pains to emphasize that the death of bin Laden would not lessen the international commitment to Afghanistan, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the appetite for the Afghan conflict is rapidly waning.

Canada is withdrawing its combat forces this summer. Germany and Britain face mounting domestic pressure to bring their troops home. In late May, the U.S. Congress narrowly missed passing a bill that would have called for an accelerated timetable for ending the war.

The United States’ Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, is now in the region with, according to the Associated Press, “a one-point agenda: to reconcile Afghanistan's warring factions.”

But peace in Afghanistan may prove elusive, judging by recent signs. While Afghan President Hamid Karzai has reached out repeatedly to his “disaffected brothers,” as he calls the Taliban, the rest of the nation might not be so accommodating.

Amrullah Saleh, the former intelligence chief who was sacked last year for his anti-reconciliation stance, has organized a movement that threatens to mount mass demonstrations and worse if the Afghan government tries to negotiate with the Taliban.

Afghan women’s groups are appealing to international bodies to stop the peace process, lest the tenuous gains they have made in the post-Taliban period be imperiled by a return to fundamentalism.

The country is also splitting neatly along ethnic and regional lines. The Taliban are drawn overwhelmingly from the majority Pashtun ethnic group, which predominates in the south; Saleh and many other fierce opponents to reconciliation belong to other ethnic groups —Tajik, Hazara or Uzbek — with a larger presence in the north.

The tensions between the various factions are rising and the recent assassination of a prominent police commander has thrown fuel on the fire.

A suicide attacker in Takhar province killed Gen. Daud Daud, the security chief for northern Afghanistan, last week. The Taliban was quick to claim responsibility.

In the days since his death, Daud has become a symbol for those who oppose talks with the Taliban. He was closely affiliated with the Northern Alliance, the loose agglomeration of armed groups that fought the Taliban in the 1990s and assisted a U.S.-led coalition in toppling the Taliban government in 2001.

Daud’s portrait is now prominently displayed at many police checkpoints, raising him to the status of hero. While the ethnic subtext is not spelled out, few are under any illusions about the message.

“These assassinations are mobilizing certain groups against any settlement with the Taliban,” said a researcher at an Afghan think-tank, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject matter. “They do not say it, but they are all non-Pashtun. Anti-Pashtun, really. The country is moving towards ethnic war.”

At a recent reception at a government ministry, the mood of those assembled was similarly bleak.

“I am afraid of what is coming,” said one young man. “The future looks very dark right now.”