US Says bin Laden's Death Does Not End Afghan War

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the Associated Press

US Says bin Laden's Death Does Not End Afghan War

The U.S. and key allies fighting Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan insisted Monday that the death of Osama bin Laden, who once found shelter there, would not mean a speedy end to the war or a rapid withdrawal of international troops.

by
Deb Riechmann

US soldiers stand guard in the southern Afghan village of Tarok Kolache on April 1. The U.S. and key allies fighting Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan insisted Monday that the death of Osama bin Laden would not mean a speedy end to the war or a rapid withdrawal of international (AFP/File/Peter Parks)

KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. and key allies fighting Taliban-led insurgents in Afghanistan insisted Monday that the death of Osama bin Laden, who once found shelter there, would not mean a speedy end to the war or a rapid withdrawal of international troops.

Still, there were fresh arguments that the real war against al-Qaida had shifted to beyond Afghan borders.

"For years, we have said that the fight against terrorism is not in Afghan villages and houses," said Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, who has pressed for a smaller military footprint in his country. "It is in safe havens, and today that was shown to be true. Stop bombarding Afghan villages and searching Afghan people."

Anti-foreigner sentiment is growing among Afghans increasingly tired of the nearly decade-long war and the failure of billions of dollars in international aid to improve their lives. And U.S. officials could feel pressure at home as well.

Snuffing out the al-Qaida network has always been the top goal of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Now that bin Laden is dead, calls could increase from war-weary Americans to speed up withdrawal of the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops still fighting the Taliban, years after the al-Qaida leadership they once harbored fled to Pakistan.

"The killing of bin Laden outside of Afghanistan raises a question: If this is a fight to destroy al-Qaida, and al-Qaida is not there but in Pakistan, should Afghanistan really be the focus?" said Vali Nasr, until recently a senior U.S. State Department adviser on Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Nasr said bin Laden's death on Pakistani soil reduces the importance of the Afghan war for U.S. national security. It could make it easier for the U.S. to wind down the war there and focus more on Pakistan, he said.

"We could come to the conclusion that the sideshow ought to be the main show," he said.

For now, the U.S. is insisting that bin Laden's death will not trigger a rapid withdrawal.

The Taliban just launched its yearly spring offensive in Afghanistan and deadly attacks still plague many parts of the country.

"This victory will not mark the end of our effort against terrorism," said U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry in a statement released in Kabul. "America's strong support for the people of Afghanistan will continue as before."

Similarly, NATO said the alliance and its partners would "continue their mission to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for extremism, but develops in peace and security."

Australian Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said his country's 1,500 troops in southern Afghanistan will "stay the course until our mission is complete."

Afghanistan's Taliban government hosted bin Laden and al-Qaida's training camps until it was toppled in the U.S.-led invasion triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Bin Laden's large financial contributions to the Taliban government made him a valuable asset to their regime, and Taliban leaders refused requests to hand him over after he was linked to the bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

After the start of the U.S. bombardment in 2001, bin Laden and the rest of al-Qaida's central leadership slipped into hiding and then across the border to Pakistan, where they found shelter among anti-government tribes along the border.

But back in Afghanistan, the remnants of the Taliban remained a resilient fighting force, and bin Laden's death now doesn't change that, some argued.

"It was a strong blow to the back of al-Qaida, but the work is not finished," said Mohammad Akbari, a lawmaker from Bamiyan province and a member of the peace council set up by the Afghan government to try to negotiate with the Taliban. "The Taliban are still active and it's a very complicated political issue."

Since taking office, President Barack Obama has committed 40,000 additional U.S. troops to battling the Taliban fighters who remain a resilient force years later. Yet his desire to start pulling out troops in July - if conditions allow - has fueled fears among some Afghans that America is on its way out.

In an interview with The Associated Press last month, Obama said the number withdrawn would not just be a "token gesture," but at the same time the U.S. has stressed that Afghan forces will not take the lead in securing their nation until 2014.

"If the U.S. troops leave, in 24 hours the Afghan government will collapse," said Mohammad Qassim Zazai, who sells antiques and carpets in Kabul.

In a conference call with reporters, Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said he would continue to push for a significant reduction in U.S. forces from Afghanistan this July, not a symbolic one.

"Security needs to be in the hands of the Afghans," Levin said. "The killing of bin Laden doesn't change my view, it reinforces it. Afghanistan is in even better position to take responsibility. Whatever direction is coming from a Pakistan safe haven no longer has the direction bin Laden could have given it."

Mohammad Abaas, an 18-year-old Kabul resident, agreed.

"They (Americans) achieved their aim and now they should leave," he said. "They were here to capture Osama bin Laden and now that he is killed they should leave."

Some Afghans said they hoped bin Laden's death would nudge the Taliban to the negotiating table. Afghan, U.S. and international leaders say they will negotiate with Taliban fighters who embrace the Afghan constitutions, renounce violence and sever ties with al-Qaida - a heavy red line in any prospective talks.

Agha Lalai, an Afghan lawmaker from Kandahar province where bin Laden used to be headquartered, said he thinks the Taliban are anxious to break with al-Qaida.

"I think that now the Taliban will be free to make their own decision, and maybe these peace negotiations will finally have some success," Lalai said.

Al-Qaida fighters are mostly Arabs. The Taliban are Afghans and "we can't fight with them forever."

Abdullah Abdullah, a former adviser to Karzai who ran against him in the last presidential election, said the Taliban were not interested in negotiating.

"The Taliban will not give up," he said. "They don't believe in participating in a democratic system, but rather they are hoping to bring it down. It will not have an impact on reconciliation as such, but the weaker the Taliban is as a movement the better the prospects of peace."

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said recently that the United States had accelerated a diplomatic push for reconciliation, a nonmilitary solution to the war. Speaking in Washington after bin Laden's death, Clinton appealed to the Taliban.

"You cannot wait us out. You cannot defeat us," said Clinton. "But you can make the choice to abandon al-Qaida and participate in a peaceful political process."

Ahmad Sarhadi, an elderly man in Kandahar city, recalled when bin Laden arrived there under Taliban protection. He expressed hope that the Taliban would sever links with al-Qaida following bin Laden's demise.

"All the power belonged to bin Laden," Sarhadi said. "Mullah Omar was just a front."

Not all Afghans cheered bin Laden's death.

"I am very sad. My heart is broken," Mohebullah, a Taliban fighter-turned farmer in Ghazni province of eastern Afghanistan, told the AP in a telephone interview. "It is a disaster and a black day."

Sayed Jalal Hussaini, a rickshaw driver in the eastern city of Jalalabad, said many people had mixed views: They were happy that a major terrorist had been eliminated but upset by the death of a man they saw as a defender of Islam and Muslims everywhere.

"He was like a hero in the Muslim world," Hussaini said. "His struggle was always against non-Muslims and infidels, and against superpowers."

Associated Press writers Heidi Vogt, Solomon Moore, Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.

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