BOSTON — The big question is: How will the death of Osama bin Laden affect the war in Afghanistan?
Now that bin Laden is gone, will the Pashtun tribal leaders in Afghanistan and their followers lose heart and be more willing to come over to the government side as some, such as Gen. John Campbell, have suggested?
Will America rethink its strategy now that public enemy No. 1 has been eliminated, as senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar have called for?
Bin Laden’s death as a “game-changer” makes sense only if you conflate the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and consider them basically the same — a mistake the United States tends to make.
While the Taliban and Al Qaeda have a close ideological relationship — both believe in the intolerant concepts of Wahhabi Islam and oppose the United States — Al Qaeda is an Arab-inspired transnational terrorist organization, while the Taliban is overwhelmingly an ethnic Pashtun force focused on driving foreigners out of Afghanistan and regaining power.
Mullah Omar, the spiritual leader of the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden found each other useful in the pre-9/11 days, but in 10 years times have changed.
The Taliban is fractured into sub groups and no longer answers solely to Mullah Omar. And funding from Osama and Al Qaeda is no longer of importance, as it once was, because the Taliban is more than adequately financed by opium, crime and rich donors in the Persian Gulf.
It is true that during the last 10 years the Taliban has begun to think more internationally about jihad, especially the Pakistani Taliban which now includes people from the Punjab, and not just Pashtuns from the Northwest Frontier. But that should not lead to the conclusion that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are one and the same.
Al Qaeda did not bring the idea of jihad to the Pashtuns. For the last couple hundred years the call for jihad has risen against foreigners; first the British, then the Russians, and now the United States and its NATO allies.
As the traditional rulers of Afghanistan, and the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns have fought among themselves and other ethnic groups when there were no foreigners to fight. They are not easily intimidated or influenced either by their Arab allies, nor our counterinsurgency.
In the spirit of former U.S. President George W. Bush’s with-us-or-against-us thinking, Americans tend to see the Taliban as simply part of the Al-Qaeda support system to be pulled out by the roots. We got into the nation-building business to prevent a Taliban return, which in turn led us into the swamp we are now in.
Looking at it from an Afghan point of view, the Pashtuns and other minorities, such as the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and others, have been in a civil war since the Soviets left in 1989. The Taliban became the Pashtun militia and the instrument of their return to dominance. Then America’s invasion in 2001 reversed the process, driving the Pashtuns from power and putting the Tajiks and their ethnic allies in power. Afghan President Hamid Karzai may be a Pashtun, but they are underrepresented in his government.
In this arc of tribal and ethnic conflict Al Qaeda plays a very minor role. And if the Pashtun tribes that make up the Taliban decide to switch sides, which they have often done before in Afghan history, or if they remain firm fighting foreigners, which has also been a part of their past, it will have little to do with Osama bin Laden alive or dead.
As for how bin Laden’s death will affect Washington, the president’s special representative, Richard Holbrooke, predicted shortly before he died that this spring would see a “tremendous debate” between those who wanted a “steep, deep” drawdown of American troops in Afghanistan, and those who wanted it to be “small and shallow.”
The current counterinsurgence strategy envisions protecting and winning over the population so that the wells of support for the Taliban will dry up. To this end, Gen. David Petraeus’ strategy is to keep hitting and hurting the Taliban until they are ready to see it our way. It is not dissimilar to the aims of Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam, and it requires lots of troops. But although we have managed to kill a lot of Taliban, wars of attrition do not often go America’s way.
As for winning hearts and minds, consider what hardened combat veteran Lt. Col. Stephen Lutsky of the U.S. Army had to say to the New Yorker’s John Lee Anderson.
“The cultural complexity of the environment is just so huge that it’s hard for us to understand it. For Americans it’s black or white — it’s either good guys or bad guys. For the Afghans, it’s not. There are good Taliban and bad Taliban, and some of them are willing to do deals with each other. It’s just beyond us,” said the colonel.
He might have added that the Afghans on both sides are Afghans, while he will always be a foreigner. Afghanistan has seldom been kind to foreigners who seek to impose their will, call it empire, communism, or counterinsurgency.