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In wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, Taliban may be considering options

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his allies in Washington are hoping that Osama bin Laden’s demise will prod the Taliban into joining peace negotiations. But the aftermath of the raid in Pakistan that killed the Al Qaeda leader could just as easily embolden the Afghan insurgent group in its long struggle against the West.

The dramatic U.S. strike against Bin Laden may provide the Taliban with greater incentives to talk rather than fight, not least the fear that its own senior leadership could suffer the same fate as the chief of its longtime ally.

Afghan Taliban chieftain Mullah Mohammed Omar is also thought to be sheltering in Pakistan, probably somewhere in Baluchistan province, which until now had been presumed too deep inside the country for a U.S. raid to pose a genuine threat. Now that assumption appears shaky.

Photos: The death of Osama bin Laden

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“This is a good time for Taliban leaders to consider their options, and it seems they may be doing so,” said Haji Agha Lalai, a provincial council member in Kandahar who has been active in the push for “reconciliation,” as the nascent peace process is known.

But even though Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton declared that the insurgents “cannot wait us out” in Afghanistan, Taliban fighters may have more reason than ever to believe they can do just that.

The Taliban leadership, always closely attuned to U.S. domestic political sentiments, is well aware of the pressure on President Obama to soon decide the scope of an American troop drawdown that is to begin in July, and of the chorus of calls to wind down the war in the wake of Bin Laden’s killing.

In the days immediately following Bin Laden’s bloody end, the Taliban leadership was silent — a rare occurrence for a movement that normally unleashes a flood of loquacious commentary on any development concerning the conflict. Only on Friday, after Al Qaeda confirmed his death, did the Taliban issue a somewhat perfunctory statement praising Bin Laden as a martyr and vowing to continue the fight against Western “invaders.”

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The relatively tepid rhetoric in response to the killing has given rise to speculation that the group may be positioning itself to sever ties with Al Qaeda, with which it has long had differences anyway. The Taliban sheltered Al Qaeda before and after the Sept. 11 attacks, but their agendas have diverged in recent years and the alliance had been held together in part by Omar’s personal friendship with Bin Laden.

A break with Al Qaeda, long demanded by the West and Karzai’s government, would be central to any political settlement, and the Obama administration has lately backed off on a demand that this pledge be a precondition to any talks.

In the aftermath of Bin Laden’s death, the White House has explicitly signaled its desire to promote negotiations between the Taliban and the Karzai government. Within hours of the announcement that the Al Qaeda leader had been killed, Clinton made an unusually direct public appeal to the Taliban to look to the bargaining table instead of the battlefield.

“You can make the choice to abandon Al Qaeda and participate in a peaceful political process,” she said. The Obama administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, also made promoting reconciliation the focus of a visit to the region days after Bin Laden’s death.

In the meantime, Taliban commanders believe they still have some tactical advantages despite being vastly outnumbered by 150,000 coalition troops.

Much-touted U.S. military gains of recent months, particularly in the south of Afghanistan, are being tested by the insurgents’ guerrilla-style tactics, including a campaign of assassinations of government and security officials, a high-profile jailbreak in Kandahar, a lethally effective use of roadside bombs and the demonstrated ability to mount complex attacks on government and military installations.

Over the weekend, Taliban gunmen and bombers mounted a brazen assault on the Kandahar governor’s compound and half a dozen other sites including the local intelligence headquarters. The attack was repelled and more than 20 Taliban fighters were killed, but it heightened a pervasive sense of insecurity in a city that the Western military had pledged to make safer.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies face increasing public impatience with the conflict, and Bin Laden’s removal from the scene could give fresh impetus to formulating an exit strategy. France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said last week that an accelerated withdrawal was under consideration.

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Western timetables for a military pullback tend to energize the Taliban, giving its fighters the sense that merely tying down so many foreign troops is a victory in itself. Time, insurgent commanders often observe, is on their side.

And Bin Laden’s death, while a psychological blow to insurgents, did nothing to change a fundamental dynamic that has benefited the Taliban for most of the nearly 10-year-old conflict in Afghanistan: a weak, corrupt and deeply unpopular central government, an Afghan army and police force whose competence and loyalty are very much in question, and continued Pakistani resistance to rooting out militant havens.

Few believe the Karzai government could survive were he not propped up by the massive Western military presence. Tapping into that perception, his rivals are painting the push for negotiations with the Taliban as an essential admission that without a peace pact, he is doomed.

Karzai’s hopes for negotiation, and those of the United States, may also be stymied by the fact that Pakistan, now under a cloud of suspicion for possible complicity in sheltering Bin Laden, would by necessity be an important player in any deal with the Taliban.

For a peace accord to be viable, the Islamabad government would need to decisively reverse decades of tacit and overt support for the Taliban. That leaves Karzai walking a fine line: publicly criticizing Pakistan for providing militants with a haven, but at the same time trying to game out a solution that would accommodate Afghanistan’s powerful neighbor. Political foes have avidly seized on that contradiction. Amrullah Saleh, fired last year as Karzai’s intelligence chief after strident criticism of Pakistan, rallied a crowd here in the capital last week with angry exhortations against a deal with the Taliban.

“To call these people ‘brother’ is an affront to the nation,” he said — a pointed dig at Karzai’s habit of referring to the Taliban as disaffected brethren. “They are not my brother. They are not your brother. They are the enemy.”

Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main opponent in the fraud-tainted 2009 presidential election, told the same protest that Karzai had gone too far in trying to strike a deal with the insurgents.

“Pleading with the hireling Taliban!” he said scornfully. “Don’t let anyone go begging like that in your name.”

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laura.king@latimes.com


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