As news of the killing of Osama bin Laden in neighbouring Pakistan broke early that Monday morning, it sent most international organisations based in Kabul into alert mode. Afghanistan, after all, was the country that had sheltered the al-Qaeda chief and given him support during the time he launched his most spectacular acts of terrorism. The internationals were told either to stay at home or to restrict their movements. In the event, nothing happened.
By and large, Afghans stayed unmoved that day. ‘I don’t know what I feel,’ said Ahmed, a young waiter at a glitzy Kabul restaurant frequented by internationals and well-heeled Afghans. ‘What do you think about it? Is it good or bad?’ His words were echoed by Hashim, a taxi driver. ‘I don’t know whether it is good or bad. Some say he was a Muslim leader and others say he was a terrorist.’ In fact, apart from fewer vehicles ferrying internationals, there was little impact on the city. Kabul, a bustling busy city of over five million, remained busy and unconcerned, not even showing the immediate tensing of its sinews that anticipation of trouble often brings.
Afghans have stayed unmoved since. There was no change even after the Friday prayers that week, a moment that in the past has often been the turning point from peace to violent protests. Most Afghans, when asked, have offered a cerebral rather than emotional reaction to the death of the man responsible for setting in motion the ‘war on terror’ fought in their backyards. Afghans discussed the death, but processed it mostly in terms of what the consequences would be for them – a calculated response that was far removed from both the jubilation on the streets of the US and the angry protests on the streets of Pakistan.
In fact, this reaction was hardly surprising. Though most images of Osama are against the backdrop of Afghanistan’s mountains, the al-Qaeda leader does not have either the symbolic potency or emotional resonance that he has had elsewhere. He is one among many actors and groups who have passed through the county in the past few decades, claiming to fight on behalf of Afghans and bringing nothing but misery. In 2010 alone, the ninth year of the Western intervention, 2777 civilians died as a result of the conflict, according to UN figures. Bin Laden might have been the touchstone for emotions in 2001, but since then he has been overtaken by events of greater urgency and figures of more immediate impact in shaping both lives and deaths in Afghanistan.
Even the Taliban, whose members are most closely associated with bin Laden in the Western narrative, kept their counsel, issuing, only days later, a tepid response. While bin Laden might have had some symbolic value as a spiritual leader, the Taliban has been autonomous both in terms of its goals and operations. While there might have been cooperation from time to time, the Afghan Taliban’s goal is limited to the aim of establishing an Islamic emirate inside Afghanistan; the organisation has not participated in the global jihad, the cause supported and financed by bin Laden. ‘Though the Afghan conflict is seen in the Western media as an internationally led one, I see it as being led by the Taliban, which is a national movement,’ says Borhan Younus, a freelance researcher and journalist. ‘The Afghan conflict has two sides – the US-led coalition and the Taliban, which is an independent movement within Afghan borders.’ Younus accepts that the Taliban has used safe havens and logistical support within Pakistan, but says ‘the Afghan Taliban are using the Pakistan land and sanctuary to do their fight. The Pakistani Taliban have a different cause.’
This became amply clear in the days following the death of bin Laden, when the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban issued very different messages. While the former emphasised that the death would not impact on either their fight or their operations, the Pakistani Taliban called for revenge. ‘It has to be emphasised that the Afghan Taliban – apart from a few individuals – have never said, and more importantly shown, in their practical behaviour that they follow the al-Qaeda strategy of worldwide jihad,’ said Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network, a respected policy-research organisation. ‘Instead, they have concentrated exclusively on Afghanistan and those parts of Pakistan where they have their logistics and fallback positions. I do not expect that Osama bin Laden’s death will have a large impact on the Afghan war.’ Ruttig emphasises that the war in Afghanistan is not fought with al-Qaeda, with the US military admitting that there are very few al-Qaeda operatives in the country. ‘Even the weight of al-Qaeda’s financial role has lost importance for the Taliban,’ Ruttig says, ‘because they can rely on domestic funding: raising taxes, including on the drugs trade and on the big-money Western contracts.’
Within Afghanistan, the perception of the links between al-Qaeda and the Taliban vary depending on the political stance of individual Afghans. Fahim Dashty, a former member of the Northern Alliance, who was with Ahmed Shah Masood when the guerrilla leader was assassinated in a 2001 suicide bombing, still bears the scars of the injuries he sustained at the time. He says he sees a much closer linkage between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and expects retaliatory attacks. Danish Karokhail the managing editor of independent news agency Pajhwok, also expects stepped-up violence, but ascribes this to the fact that bin Laden’s death will provide an excuse to target Afghans on the grounds that have not stood up against the ‘foreign invaders’.
Violence is indeed expected to escalate over the next few months, and it is possible that renewed attacks could be linked to the death of bin Laden, as has begun happening in Pakistan. However, notwithstanding who claims credit or in the name of what cause, Afghans were already expecting a bloody summer. The melting of snows in the higher mountains signals the start of the fighting season, and three days ahead of bin Laden’s death the Taliban had already announced their spring offensive.
‘We were right’
In Afghanistan, the most-discussed impact of bin Laden’s death is its likely impact on the US-led ‘war on terror’. The war in Afghanistan has currently reached its lowest levels of popularity in the US; according to a poll released in March, nearly two-thirds of Americans today say the war is no longer worth fighting. Such findings would have strengthened the resolve of President Barack Obama to put into effect his plans for a security transition, which will see a gradual drawdown of US troops beginning in July. While not all US troops will leave the country, and the issue of permanent bases remains to be decided, there will be fewer US boots on the ground and a more rapid exit from combat operations and frontline positions. US troops will stay but in a different role, mentoring Afghans as well as safeguarding their own bases rather than the Afghan population.
This is what worries many Afghans, who feel their own security forces are nowhere near ready to take control of security. ‘I hope the international community will not abandon Afghanistan, saying ‘Mission accomplished’,’ says Shahmahmood Miakhel, the chief of party for the United States Institute for Peace, a government-funded body. Likewise, says political Analyst Amir Foladi, ‘I have concerns that the United States may think their mission is done and there is no need to be heavily involved.’
Though the US has stated that the death of bin Laden would not mean an end to the ‘war on terror’, all political and military signals suggest a much more circumscribed role for the US military, which currently compromises the bulk of foreign forces fighting in Afghanistan. (Against the 100,000 US troops, there are only around 32,000 others.) The second-largest troop contributor, Britain, with 9500 troops, has already announced that it will have no combat troops in Afghanistan beyond 2015; Prime Minister David Cameron further seized on the political momentum of bin Laden’s death to announce a reduction of British troops by 400 by February 2012, while disclosing that the US was also planning larger reductions. Reports in the US media point to a reduction of 5000 troops in July, and another 5000 by the end of the year.
More importantly, the narrative emanating from Washington is portraying the military operation in Afghanistan as a success against all odds (see Himal December 2010, ‘Too much, too little’). Despite the increasing civilian casualties, the high casualty rate of US soldiers and the spreading influence of the Taliban – social, political and military – the US continues to claim accomplishments that are hard to see on the ground. The most recent report from the Department of Defence spoke of tangible progress against the Taliban and was, according to the Washington Post, the Department’s ‘most positive view of the Afghanistan war in years’. The DoD was similarly rosy about the progress of the Afghan national security forces to take over security responsibilities. President Obama himself has been clear that the US goal is not to defeat every last threat to Afghanistan, but rather to secure America and its allies from threats in the future.
An equally compelling discussion among Afghans has been has been speculation on the role of the Pakistani state in providing a sanctuary for bin Laden, and whether this discovery would change the attitude of the US and other Western governments towards Pakistan. For several years, the Afghan government, especially President Karzai, has been demanding that international troops direct their operations across the border, rather than at the homes and villages of Afghanistan. His demand served two purposes, absolving the Afghan state of the responsibility of managing what is, in essence, an insurgency; while also catering to growing anti-Western sentiment, especially that coalescing around the large number of civilian casualties as a result of military operations. In the immediate aftermath of bin Laden’s death, President Karzai stated, ‘The world should realise, as we said many, many times and continue to say every day, the fight against terrorism is not in Afghanistan’s villages … The fight against terrorism is in its sanctuaries, in its training camps and its finance centres, not in Afghanistan – and today it has been proved we were right.’
The demand for more action against Pakistan has been one that cuts across the political spectrum in Afghanistan, albeit with widely differing emphasis. While some analysts see the complicity of the Pakistani state in fostering the extremism that haunts Afghanistan, others refer to the presence of sanctuaries on Pakistani soil. In between are those who believe that it is a part of the Pakistani state, rather than the whole, that is complicit. Either way, the hope is clear: ‘This should help Obama and the NATO to realign their strategy,’ says Halim Fidai, the governor of central Wardak province and a close associate of President Hamid Karzai. His colleague, Sayed Fazlullah Wahidi, the governor of Kunar, in the east, agrees: ‘We will tell the international community it is time for them to accept this [linkage with Pakistan]. Osama was found in Pakistan.’
Still, within Afghanistan there is a section of opinion that sees these demands as mere rhetoric. President Karzai himself, for instance, has been tilting towards Pakistan over the last year and a half. While the president reiterated his demand that the international community look to Pakistan following the death of bin Laden, few actually believe this will happen. Most feel the West is invested too heavily in Pakistan and unwilling to change tack. Western diplomats in Kabul do not see the bin Laden death as a decisive moment of change in their relationship with Pakistan. A look at the rhetoric that has come from London and Washington in recent weeks bears this out. While senior officials and political figures have raised ‘questions’ about the role of the Pakistani state in harbouring bin Laden, there has yet to be any substantive action.
For Afghanistan, bin Laden’s death has neither been an event of great impact, nor a game-changer. Rather, it feeds into current plans already set in motion, and might well act as a catalyst for some of them. The Afghan Taliban, not reliant on al-Qaeda, will continue on its course; the international troops, having already laid their plans for an exit strategy, might now quicken their disengagement plans; plans for reconciliation, which were presaged on insurgent groups breaking ties with al-Qaeda, might find new impetus. In the foreseeable future, Afghans expect to continue paying the price, with bin Laden’s death having brought them neither the closure nor the breathing space it has brought to many other parts of the world.