Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, some analysts are speculating that al-Qaeda and its Afghan Taliban allies could go their separate ways, increasing the chances for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden's death is likely to revive a debate within the Afghan Taliban about their ties to al-Qaida — a union the U.S. insists must end if the insurgents want to talk peace.
The foundation of their relationship is believed to be rooted in bin Laden's long friendship with the Taliban's reclusive one-eyed leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, who might now find it more palatable to break with al-Qaida and negotiate a settlement to the war. Much may depend on the newly chastened power-broker next door: Pakistan.
"I think now is an opportunity for the Taliban to end their relations with al-Qaida," said Waheed Muzhda, a Kabul-based analyst and former foreign ministry official under the Taliban regime that was toppled in late 2001.
Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, said it was too early to comment.
But the death of the world's top terrorist gives momentum toward finding a political solution to the nearly decade-long war, according to analysts familiar with U.S. officials' stepped-up effort this year to push a peace agenda.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration have said they will negotiate with any member of the Taliban who embraces the Afghan constitution, renounces violence and severs ties with al-Qaida. Informal contacts have been made in recent months with high-ranking Taliban figures, but no formal peace talks are under way.
The possible opportunity comes just as the spring fighting season is kicking into gear. The U.S.-led coalition hopes to hold ground in southern Afghanistan gained as a result of the addition last year of an extra 30,000 American troops. The Taliban's goal remains undermining the Afghan government, discrediting its security forces and driving the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops and other foreign forces out of the country.
Even before bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs at a compound in Pakistan on Monday, the links between the al-Qaida and the Afghan Taliban had weakened during the 10 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, Muzhda said. Mullah Omar's refusal to hand over bin Laden after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon prompted the U.S.-led assault on Afghanistan that ousted the Taliban from power. By siding with bin Laden, Mullah Omar's hardline regime lost control of the nation.
The goals of the two movements are not closely aligned. While al-Qaida is focused on worldwide jihad against the West and establishment of a religious superstate in the Muslim world, the Afghan Taliban have focused on their own country and have shown little to no interest in attacking targets outside Afghanistan. The car bombing in May 2010 in New York's Times Square was linked to the Pakistani Taliban — an autonomous group on the other side of the border.
But breaking with al-Qaida would mean forgoing some reliable funding channels in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Syria, according to a Western intelligence officer. Mullah Omar's association with bin Laden also gave him clout, said the officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.
Al-Qaida shares its technical expertise in explosives and helps the Taliban traffic narcotics made with opium poppies grown in Afghanistan, he said. For their part, the Taliban allow al-Qaida to come into Afghanistan on the backs of Taliban fighters.
Still, some members of the Taliban's top leadership council have grown uncomfortable with al-Qaida, and a vocal minority want to distance themselves from the mostly Arab terrorist network, he said.
There are also cultural differences. Al-Qaida has viewed the Taliban as more backward, "kinda like West Virginia mountain folk — unrefined, uneducated," the officer said.
And "the older generation of Taliban leaders had long ago become fed up with the arrogance of Arab jihadists," Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid wrote Monday in a column in the Financial Times.
Two other issues, according to the intelligence officer, could affect the Taliban's internal debate about al-Qaida. While bin Laden had personal connections to Taliban leaders, the man expected to replace him, Egyptian-born Ayman al-Zawahri, is a less charismatic, unifying figure. And top Taliban leaders now know that the U.S. might hunt them down in Pakistan even without the cooperation or knowledge of the Pakistani military — as was done with bin Laden.
In June 2010, CIA Director Leon Panetta estimated that there were probably only 50 to 100 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan — that most of the terrorist network was, without question, operating from the western tribal region of Pakistan. Last month, Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that while some al-Qaida fighters have been searching for hide-outs in rugged areas of eastern Afghanistan, he did not think they were making a comeback inside the country.
Abu Hafs al-Najdi — a senior al-Qaida leader in Afghanistan and the coalition's No. 2 overall targeted insurgent in the country — was killed in an April 13 airstrike in Kunar province, a hotbed of the insurgency in the northeast. In the past several weeks, coalition forces reported killing more than 25 al-Qaida leaders and fighters.
While the military offensive continues, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said recently that the United States had accelerated a diplomatic push to craft a political solution to the war. Marc Grossman, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan who is heading up the effort, met with Afghanistan and Pakistan officials on Tuesday in Islamabad and agreed to set up a so-called Core Group for promoting the Afghan-led reconciliation effort.
With little known about the secret inner workings of the Afghan Taliban's governing council, called the Quetta Shura, analysts can only speculate about the group's plans.
"The killing of bin Laden might motivate them to sever their ties," said Brian Katulis, of the Washington-based think-tank Center for American Progress. "I think the signal that the Quetta Shura and others are getting from people in Pakistan in the security services will be key."
The U.S. has accused Pakistan's military-run spy service of maintaining links with the Haqqani network, which is affiliated with the Afghan Taliban and closely aligned with al-Qaida. Pointedly, the Americans did not inform Pakistan about Monday's helicopter raid that killed bin Laden until it was over.
That bin Laden's hideout turned out to be a three-story home a short drive from the capital, Islamabad, and close to various Pakistani army regiments has raised suspicions in Washington that the Pakistanis may have been sheltering him. For years, Western intelligence had said bin Laden was most likely holed up in a cave along the Pakistan-Afghan border.
The Pakistani government has denied suggestions that its security forces knew bin Laden was there. Pakistani officials have long argued that they have done their part in the fight against militants and denounce allegations that they are backing insurgents.
"The raid was obviously deeply embarrassing for the Pakistanis," Katulis said. "They could either redouble their efforts to try to cooperate more closely with the U.S. or they can continue to play their passive-aggressive game."
Don't expect a near-term divorce with al-Qaida, said Michael Wahid Hanna, an analyst with The Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank.
"It makes no sense for the Taliban to concede this point on the front end — without receiving any commensurate concession from the other side," Hanna said. "Some of the Taliban I have spoken to have made the point that as long as the military fight escalates, they will cooperate with other forces who are willing to assist them in their fight against the U.S.-led coalition. They portray any pre-emptive severing of ties as a type of unilateral, partial disarmament."
Seth Jones, a RAND Corp. political scientist who advised the commander of U.S. special operations forces in Afghanistan, said he suspects "the Taliban would interpret cutting ties with al-Qaida as kowtowing to the Americans."
Jones said that while the Taliban don't need al-Qaida to operate, they still retain ties with al-Qaida's senior leaders as they have for decades.
Former Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Lt. Gen. Abdul Hadi Khalid said some members of the Taliban want to split with al-Qaida. The fighting spirit of the Taliban has been dampened by recent brutal attacks around the country that killed scores of Afghan civilians — attacks he suspects were inspired by al-Qaida.
These Taliban members "feel they are going the wrong way," Khalid said.
However, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of the Afghan president, said top Taliban leaders directing the insurgency remain very closely associated with al-Qaida. Al-Qaida still helps train Taliban fighters, and foreign fighters aligned with al-Qaida continue to fight side-by-side with Taliban foot soldiers, he said.
"I don't know how they will be able to distance themselves," Karzai said.
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