KABUL, Afghanistan — The satisfaction on the Afghan president’s face was palpable as he teased his audience with the news.
“This is a very important day,” Hamid Karzai told the first national conference of district development councils. “Perhaps you have already heard something about it? Yesterday American forces found and killed Osama bin Laden. They have brought him to justice.”
The crowd of provincial dignitaries erupted in applause.
But the president was not finished. The most important message was yet to come.
“Now the world knows that Afghanistan was right,” he said. “Afghans have been the first victims in this war on terror. We have said many, many times over the years that the war on terror should not be fought in Afghan villages, in Afghan homes. We appreciate the sacrifice of the American people in Afghanistan … but we also want them to acknowledge our losses. Afghans were being killed by both sides. Now we have proof before all the world that Afghanistan is not the center of terrorism.”
Karzai called on the Taliban to lay down their weapons and embrace peace; he also urged the international community to stop their war on Afghans.
“Osama bin Laden was found in Pakistan,” he said. “I call on NATO to stop destroying our houses, stop bombarding our women and children.”
Civilian casualties have been a constant and contentious issue between the Afghan president and his international partners.
The Taliban were quite cautious in their reaction to the news.
“We are not commenting at the moment,” Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mojahed told the BBC. “We are conducting our own investigation, and then we will issue a statement.”
The Taliban response could be extremely important to the future of the war in Afghanistan, said Martine van Biljert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent think-tank based in Kabul.
Judging by Karzai’s statements, he is hoping that the removal of the Al Qaeda leader will help to end this long and extremely bloody war.
“I can see where Karzai is coming from,” said van Biljert. “The way he probably sees it is that if the Taliban come out and distance themselves from Al Qaeda, that could give the U.S. a reason to say that it has accomplished its mission and leave. That then would end the war. But I don't think that is realistic.”
U.S. President Barack Obama, in his first major policy speech on Afghanistan in March 2009, said that the United States had “a clear and focused goal: to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Some would argue that the killing of bin Laden goes a long way toward achieving this goal. But van Biljert cautioned that the international players in Afghanistan were almost certainly not contemplating any major changes.
"I do not expect that the killing of bin Laden will have a major impact on the war in Afghanistan,” she said. “It now has its own momentum.”
This is certainly borne out by the reaction of the international community.
“This victory will not mark the end of our effort against terrorism,” said Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, in a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. “America’s strong support for the people of Afghanistan will continue as before.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen echoed his American colleague.
“NATO Allies and partners will continue their mission to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for extremism, but develops in peace and security,” said the NATO chief, in a prepared statement. “We will continue to stand for the values of freedom, democracy and humanity that Osama bin Laden wanted to defeat.”
But it may be a lot trickier for the United States to justify the costs of the war to an increasingly skeptical public now that bin Laden is dead, said van Biljert.
“It will probably become more difficult for the United States to explain to its public why they are in Afghanistan, particularly if it becomes more complicated to portray the Taliban and Al Qaeda as closely linked,” she said.
For the people of Afghanistan, she added, the most important aspect of the whole affair has been the damage done to Pakistan’s reputation.
“The death of Bin Laden in itself doesn't seem to mean that much for people in Afghanistan,” she said. “The most important thing from their point of view was that Pakistan ended up with egg on its face, for all to see.”
That assessment was reinforced by reaction from Afghans throughout the country, many of whom chose to express their views through social media.
“So does Pakistan want the whole world to know that the intelligence agency of a nuclear power did not know anything about Osama bin Laden hiding in Abbottabad?” tweeted one young man.
The alternative, of course, is for Pakistan to admit that its military and intelligence service were supporting bin Laden all along. This is the preferred explanation for most Afghans, many of whom are bitter about the punishment they have received for harboring the world’s most wanted man immediately following 9/11.
“Pakistan owes us an apology for putting the blame on our people,” said a young Afghan writing on his Facebook page.
Once the elation over bin Laden’s demise has abated, Afghans and their international partners will be contemplating an uncertain future. The major problems in Afghanistan — poor governance, corruption, ethnic tension and an insurgency that feeds on all of those ills — will not be solved by the removal of one man.
Author and researcher Felix Kuehn, whose book "An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban / Al-Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010" will be published this spring, warns that the Taliban are not likely to melt away in the wake of bin Laden’s death.
“The Taliban insurgency is, as we know indigenous,” said Kuehn. “While much of the leadership resides in Pakistan, the fighters are locals, motivated by a host of grievances. The death of Osama bin Laden will have little effect on the local insurgents, the Taliban field commanders and their operations here.”
Kuehn also advises against an overly rosy assessment of the loss of bin Laden to Al Qaeda.
“While the death of bin Laden is a significant event and success, its effect on Al Qaeda at large is unclear,” he said. “It is a disruption, but not necessarily a dismantling or defeat as far as the Al Qaeda network is concerned.”
The organization has fractured, he added, with independent groups operating largely outside the control of the core leadership.
“As for the Afghan Taliban, the death of bin Laden will have little to no effect on field operations and the efforts currently underway as part of the announced spring offensive,” he said.
The Taliban have recently launched Operation Badar, a series of strikes designed to refute NATO reports that the Taliban have been significantly weakened. In the two days since Badar began, at least 11 people have been killed in suicide attacks attributed to the Taliban; one of the attackers was found to be a 12-year-old boy.
The Afghan capital has been tense for days, ever since the announcement of the spring offensive. Many government offices did not open on Sunday, and most international consultants were locked down, restricted from going to restaurants or private homes, and, in some cases, even from going to work.
Now the anxiety has been compounded by the killing of bin Laden. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a worldwide travel alert, urging Americans to restrict their movements.
“Given the uncertainty and volatility of the current situation, U.S. citizens in areas where recent events could cause anti-American violence are strongly urged to limit their travel outside of their homes and hotels and avoid mass gatherings and demonstrations,” read the statement.
While most observers downplayed the possibility of the Taliban taking direct revenge for the death of bin Laden, there are concerns that some splinter groups might be angry enough to retaliate.
The Haqqani network, an insurgent group headed by a father and son who are close to Pakistan and thought to be supported by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, has previously mounted operations in Kabul, and some are nervous that they may do so again.
In Kabul’s Serena Hotel, the local staff needed no reminders of what could happen when anti-foreigner sentiment gains the upper hand. The hotel has been attacked three times, most seriously in January 2008, when insurgents assumed to have been from the Haqqani network breached the security outside, gained access to the hotel itself and killed at least eight people before security forces were able to regain control.
With bin Laden’s death, some fear that the Serena could again become a target.
“All of our staff are very worried,” said a local manager. “We don’t really know what to feel. Of course people are happy, but we are also very afraid.”
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