Osama bin Laden’s death helps clear the way for a political settlement in Afghanistan by making it easier for the Taliban to sever ties with al-Qaeda.
However, many other obstacles remain in reaching a negotiated end to the Afghan war, including regional rivalry and competing demands of different groups inside Afghanistan.
“Things are falling into their correct place,” said one Pakistani official, who declined to be named. “Osama bin Laden’s killing may lead us toward an end-game.”
“I do think that this opens the door to push for a political settlement; that depends, however, on [US] President [Barack] Obama choosing to take the opportunity,” Joshua Foust said at the American Security Project in Washington.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in February that Washington wanted “to move this conflict toward a political outcome that shatters the alliance between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, ends the insurgency,” and stabilizes Afghanistan.
The US wants the Taliban to break with al-Qaeda, as well as renouncing violence and respecting the Afghan constitution.
“These are not pre-conditions, these are end-conditions,” said a Western official. “We are getting out the message. We can’t do this too often. Come in and talk.”
Official sources have said Washington has already begun talks with the Taliban, an effort which is matched, some Afghan analysts say, by a willingness on the part of the Islamist movement to break ties with al-Qaeda.
However, it has been unclear how the Taliban would be expected to make this break — a public renunciation would be one thing; actively turning over former allies to the US would be much harder.
Bin Laden’s death may have helped resolve that problem.
“It will be easier for the Taliban to distance itself from al-Qaeda after bin Laden’s death,” Gilles Dorronsoro wrote in a post at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
In a report that has acquired new relevance after bin Laden’s death, international experts at The Century Foundation said in March that one way to make the break would be for the Taliban to declare an end to the more than 30 years of jihad in Afghanistan that began with the Soviet invasion in 1979.
In a post on The Century Foundation Web site, foreign policy specialist Jeffrey Laurenti said the death of bin Laden, with whom Mullah Omar had shared personal ties, made that easier.
“The Taliban inner circle has long debated the wisdom of the movement’s alignment with al-Qaeda, but the high esteem in which the Taliban ‘commander of the faithful,’ Mullah Mohammed Omar, was said to hold bin Laden as a pious Muslim warrior has long been decisive in squelching any talk of a divorce,” he said. “We cannot know if Mullah Omar’s determination not to betray bin Laden will prove as fierce for any successor.”
US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Marc Grossman, speaking after a meeting in Islamabad with officials from both countries, also stressed the need to follow up Clinton’s call in February for a political settlement.
“Today, our discussion focused on how we can make Afghan reconciliation successful,” he said.
However, while the US launched its military campaign in 2001 to hunt down al-Qaeda, it is far from clear that the decapitation of the Islamist group and its likely subsequent disarray is enough now to stabilize Afghanistan.