Bin Laden death sets up end game for the Taliban

If Pakistan has become such a dangerous place, as the joke doing the rounds of the streetside cafes goes, that even Osama bin Laden isn’t safe there, then the leaders of the Taliban waging war in Afghanistan had better start looking over their shoulders.

Conjecture about the involvement of Pakistani authorities in the operation that killed bin Laden has mainly concentrated on whether they knew he was living in the biggest compound in the garrison town of Abbotabad, a short drive from Islamabad.

Bin Laden’s presence in Pakistan was certainly no surprise to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been vindicated in his long insistence that the source of global terrorism is not amongst the poor villages of his own country, but over the border in Pakistan.

The president, often derided for his habit of blaming the West for the problems his government fails to address, has looked genuinely happy basking in his I-told-you-so moment.

He has emerged with enhanced stature, and now faces the possibility that his efforts to lay the groundwork for peace talks to end the war could benefit as a direct result of bin Laden’s death.

Days after bin Laden was killed, on May 2, I took part in my capacity as former Kabul bureau chief for the AFP news agency in a Frontline Club panel discussion on the impact his death is likely to have.

Like most of my fellow panelists, I suggested that the fact of his death is unlikely to make much difference to the overall landscape of global terrorism, as Al Qaeda is an idea, rather than a man.

I also suggested that with the removal of the celebrity figurehead of global terrorism, the hollowness of the Al Qaeda creed — essentially, the murder of non-Muslims — would be laid bare, as would the lack of standing the group and its leadership have in the general global jihadi millieu.

Taliban commanders never looked to bin Laden for leadership, and their current ‘spring offensive‘ will be unaffected by his demise. The Al Qaeda leadership will pass down the hierarchy, and there is likely to be a period of consolidation within the group and the Islamist community generally. We may see some retaliatory attacks on Western targets, as threatened in the Al Qaeda’s acknowledgement that their leader had indeed been killed. It is just as likely that they will see that without a poster boy, they have nothing on which to hang their shingle. It must have galled bin Laden to see that the regimes he had railed against for decades are being toppled and threatened, not by fervent supporters of violent Sharia, but by people using Facebook and Twitter to call for modern concepts like democracy and freedom of speech.

Importantly for Afghanistan, the death of bin Laden makes it possible for the Taliban now to comply with one of the main conditions of their participation in Karzai’s peace process — the renouncement of links and loyalty to Al Qaeda.

If, as I strongly suspect, bin Laden was handed over to the United States by Pakistan’s intelligence and military establishment, a very clear message has been sent to the Taliban leadership, who are also harboured on Pakistani soil, from where they plan, man and fund the escalating war of horrors in Afghanistan.

Mullah Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader, and the Quetta Shura, its leadership council, have been placed on notice by the Pakistanis. They will participate in Karzai’s peace process, and they will do so as proxies for Islamabad, to ensure Pakistan emerges as the controlling force of Afghanistan’s future.

Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is playing a long game for control of Afghanistan, and the death of Osama bin Laden is only its latest strategic move.