Bin Laden's death and the unknown in Afghanistan

Bin Laden's death and the unknown in Afghanistan

Taliban and Al Qaedas survival depend largely on their global finance and support from Pakistan

Bin Laden's death and the unknown in Afghanistan

day is ahead An Afghan National Army soldier stands guard at the entrance of the Zargona Ana High School for Girls as a burned-out bus destroyed during recently demonstrations is trucked past in Kandahar. nyt

For the Taliban, the jury is still out: they say their insurgency was never solely dependent on Bin Laden, and they could survive his demise, but the American raid that killed him has raised the possibility that even the movement’s top leaders may not be safe in Pakistan.

Many leaders in Europe, though, see Bin Laden’s death as another reason to pull out of a war they have promised to quit anyway in the next three years. And in Washington, administration officials say they believe that Bin Laden’s death offers them a unique opportunity to unnerve the Taliban leadership and engage them in a political negotiation they have so far resisted. “If you are Mullah Omar,” one of President Obama’s top advisers said of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Afghan Taliban’s spiritual leader, who operates from Pakistan, “you’ve got to wonder whether the next set of helicopters is coming for you.”

The mystery now is whether the removal of Bin Laden as the central, mesmerising figure in the battle between fundamentalists and the West is truly a tipping point, as the White House is betting, or whether it will prove more consequential to the debate in the US about the pace of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, set to begin this summer.

That may depend on a series of events that have yet to unfold: whether Al Qaeda strikes back for the killing of its leader, whether the American military force in Afghanistan remains at its current strength and whether Afghanistan’s own military proves more capable than it has been so far in taking the lead in contested areas of the country.

Disrput Al Qaeda

All last week, Obama and his aides emphasised that their goal was to defeat Al Qaeda — the Taliban, officials have argued since 2009, simply need to be “degraded” as a force, so that Afghans can fight them and the US can leave. The president made the distinction clear last Friday during his visit to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he met the Navy Seal team that killed Bin Laden.“We’re making progress in our major goal, our central goal, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and that is disrupting and dismantling — and we are going to ultimately defeat Al Qaeda,” he said. “We have cut off their head, and we will ultimately defeat them.”

The Taliban’s refusal to hand over Bin Laden led to the American invasion in 2001, of course. And separating Al Qaeda from the Taliban has always been an American requirement for any negotiation. But there is an alternative possibility heard in Kabul: the Taliban may take heart from the death of Bin Laden if they sense that his demise — and Al Qaeda’s infighting — is likely to accelerate an American withdrawal from the region.

The mood in the Taliban’s main leadership organisation in Pakistan, the Quetta shura, is calm, according to people who have spoken to some of the members there. Taliban members were passing around a message from Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s No 2 and Bin Laden’s possible successor, saying that “killing Osama bin Laden is just like taking a single grape from a bunch of grapes.” A Taliban commander in Kunar Province, Zar Mohammed Ghairat, projected a similarly resolute air. “He was a leader and a man, but there are hundreds of other Osama bin Ladens left behind,” he said.

Though the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been entwined, their aims are believed to have differed. The Taliban’s primary goal has been to control Afghanistan, whereas Al Qaeda has wanted to establish a global terrorist network. The question for the US, then, is how many resources — and how many American casualties — should be devoted to dealing with what is essentially a local insurgency, now that Bin Laden is gone? Most important to the future of that insurgency may be the choices made by Pakistan’s military and its top intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, which have been the Taliban’s prime sponsors.

Pakistani officials were angered and humiliated by the American raid that killed Bin Laden, and Pakistan is likely to remain a difficult partner, reluctant to eliminate the financing and sanctuaries it has provided to the Taliban. Pakistan’s support, the survival of Mullah Omar and the reluctance so far of Taliban fighters to join the Afghan government make it unlikely that the movement’s energy will be sapped overnight.

Similarly, the Taliban’s leaders have not been free to sit down with President Hamid Karzai and work out a deal without running afoul of their Pakistani hosts. “It is very early,” said Rangin Spanta, the national security adviser to Karzai. “On the one hand, losing a charismatic leader is good, but we have to think forward and bring a corrective to our strategy in addressing the sanctuaries and choosing our allies.” Moreover, Al Qaeda’s importance to an insurgency that is far from uniform across Afghanistan, particularly in terms of financing, has waned, Western and Afghan intelligence analysts said.

Money shortage

In the south, where the Afghan Taliban are active, the major source of income for fighters is the narcotics industry, said a senior Western intelligence official. For fighters in the east, “the primary source is illicit activities, smuggling marble, chromate, gems and timber, as well as kidnapping,” the official said. However, the Taliban leadership has been helped considerably by Al Qaeda.  One Afghan security official who has tracked members of Al Qaeda since 2001 but asked not to be named, said that bin Laden was not just a charismatic figurehead who inspired so many fighters, but also the main draw for financing from rich supporters in Arab countries.

The Taliban was already experiencing a money shortage as a result of the Arab Spring, the official said, reflecting the change in priorities of their usual supporters in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.

The Haqqani group, which is active in the southeast and close to the ISI, depends on money from Pakistan, but also on Al Qaeda, said Western and Afghan intelligence officials. As significant to the Taliban are their havens and training camps in Pakistan’s largely ungoverned tribal areas. Whether they survive is largely up to Pakistan. The number of Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan has been often estimated at fewer than 100, according to senior intelligence officials here.

However, Al Qaeda is present in concentrated numbers in Nuristan and Kunar provinces, in eastern Afghanistan, where American forces have largely withdrawn, according to a Western intelligence official in Kabul. He noted that foreign soldiers were continuing to fight there but were flying in for missions rather than being tied down at bases. How they may be affected by Bin Laden’s death is not yet clear, officials said.