There were no scenes of spontaneous celebrations in Kabul on May 2, as news of the death of terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden spread among residents of the Afghan capital. Rather than fostering feelings of vindication or satisfaction, bin Laden’s demise filled many Afghans with a sense of unease, amid a sprinkling of conspiracy theories.
Afghans had lots of questions relating to the sudden turn of events for which there are no immediate answers: Will bin Laden’s death provide the US military with cover to accelerate the pace of its withdrawal from Afghanistan? Will the international community turn away from the nation once more, as it did after Soviet forces withdrew in 1989? And will al Qaeda retaliate?
“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?”
President Hamid Karzai responded quickly to US President Barack Obama’s late-night May 1 announcement that American special forces had killed bin Laden during a raid on his compound, located not far from the Pakistani capital Islamabad. News agencies quoted the Afghan president as urging the Taliban to talk with his government: “We call on Taliban to learn from what happened yesterday and stop fighting.”
Karzai also used the occasion to trumpet that terrorism is centered across the border inside Pakistan, a case that his government has been making for years. “The world should realize 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 not in the houses of poor and oppressed Afghans, the fight is not in bombing women and children,” Karzai was quoted as saying by The New York Times. “The fight against terrorism is in its sanctuaries, in its training camps and its finance centers, not in Afghanistan and today it has been proved we were right.”
Among Afghan analysts, the sentiments expressed by Karzai are widely shared. Bin Laden’s death in Pakistan offers “proof that most of al Qaeda’s senior leadership is not in Afghanistan,” said Shahmahmood Miakhel, the chief of party for the United States Institute for Peace. “Hopefully Afghanistan’s neighbors, with the help of the international community, will cooperate to weed out the root causes of terrorism from Afghanistan, the region and the world.”
Miakhel was among several analysts in Kabul who expressed concern that bin Laden’s death would cause Afghanistan to take an undesirable turn – at least from the Afghan perspective. Specifically, Miakhel wondered if the news on bin Laden was a prelude to abandonment by the United States. “I hope the international community will not abandon Afghanistan, saying ‘mission accomplished’ and leave behind an unstable government,” Miakhel told EurasiaNet.org.
Political analyst Amir Foladi echoed that concern. Bin Laden’s death “demonstrates that no one can hide for the rest of their lives to escape their misdeeds. It is a lesson for the Taliban. At the same time, this should not be seen as game over. I have concerns that the United States may think their mission is done and there is no need to be heavily involved. The al Qaeda network is not dead,” he said.
Observers were split over how the death of the al Qaeda leader might influence the Taliban’s insurgency. “This may be a big, big blow, but it does not mean they will change what they do,” said civil society activist Mehbouba Seraj, referring to the Taliban. “They may step up efforts to prove themselves and the main place they will do that will be in Afghanistan. I am really concerned that they [the Taliban] will step up their attacks.”
While accepting the notion that the death of bin Laden might damage the Taliban’s image, Borhan Younus, a researcher and writer, emphasized that the Taliban, unlike al Qaeda, is a national movement. Thus, bin Laden’s death does not stand to alter significantly the Taliban strategy in Afghanistan. “Al Qaeda has global ambitions, the Taliban is an independent movement within Afghanistan’s borders. It is only using land and sanctuary [inside Pakistan] for their own fight,” Younus told EurasiaNet.org.
Many Kabul observers questioned the timing of the operation to kill bin Laden, noting the United States is set to start its drawdown in a matter of weeks, in July. “I don’t believe in coincidences. I think there was a link between the recent changes in the US leadership in Afghanistan,” said Seraj, referring to the April 28 announcement of the appointment of a new US ambassador and a new general in charge of US and NATO troops on the ground.
Younus was blunter: “This has happened at a time when the United States is seeking justification for withdrawing troops. This operation will provide it.”
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul.