The U.S. and Taliban have struggled against domestic political opposition in forging the peace deal both groups know is necessary. With the al-Qaeda leader gone, peace may become much easier to justify
Diners at a Kabul restaurant watch an Afghan local television channel news telecast about Osama Bin Laden's death. Ahmad Masood/Reuters
After nearly ten years and the deployment of over a hundred thousand U.S. troops, the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan may have seen its biggest break yet in a different country altogether, with the death of a man who was the purpose of the war's start in 2001 but has come to play at best a marginal role in the fighting between NATO and the Taliban. Osama bin Laden did little to organize al-Qaeda operations in the years before his death on Sunday, and neither he nor his group were especially important to the war over Taliban control of Afghanistan. But all war is politics, and bin Laden's death will have political implications in the U.S. and in Afghanistan that may hasten, perhaps dramatically, the draw-down of a war that has claimed many thousands more lives than al-Qaeda's attacks on August 7, 1998, against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania; on September 11, 2001, against the U.S.; and all its other terrorist acts, small and large, since.
President Obama has been looking for a way to peacefully end the war in Afghanistan, to little success, since his December 2009 speech announcing he would send an additional 30,000 troops. His pledge to begin reducing troop levels this summer has already slipped, and the planned 2014 drawdown will likely do the same. U.S.-supervised peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government hit a major setback when the man we believed was high-ranking Taliban official Mullah Mansour turned out to be a fake. Previous Taliban leaders who attempted to negotiate peace have been captured, killed, or intimidated by Pakistani intelligence services, which show every indication of wanting the war to continue indefinitely.
Despite the setbacks, the U.S. under Obama has pressed toward a peace settlement in Afghanistan. It has opened direct peace talks with the Taliban -- an extraordinary step -- implicitly conceding that the Taliban will have a permanent place in legitimate Afghan politics if that is the price of peace. Obama's decision to move General David Petraeus from the lead spot in the U.S.-led Afghan War to the director's office at the Central Intelligence Agency, as well as his choice to move Director of Central Intelligence Leon Panetta to Secretary of Defense, both imply that the U.S. will be shifting its emphasis from fighting a large-scale war in Afghanistan to the smaller-scale, largely clandestine battle against terrorism.
Though Obama appears determined to end the Afghan War, as of 24 hours ago he still faced two significant obstacles: a U.S. political and cultural dynamic unready to declare an end to hostilities with the Taliban, and a Taliban that may have been ideologically incapable of breaking with al-Qaeda's mandate for endless, existential war against the U.S. and accepting peace. Both sides of the conflict understand the general framework of peace -- government participation for the Taliban, persistent if lower-scale U.S. presence, and breaking the Taliban from al-Qaeda -- but are restrained by their own domestic politics. Bin Laden's death will loosen those restraints and make both the U.S. and Taliban more able to sell their people on peace.
The Taliban may not be a democratic organization, but, like all insurgencies, it is utterly dependent on the active support and participation not just of its fighters but of their communities and the communities of Afghan villages on and off the front lines. That grassroots support is largely incumbent on expelling foreign militaries and reclaiming Islamist governance in Kabul -- issues that have nothing to do with al-Qaeda's global mission -- but the Taliban could not maintain their support if they crossed bin Laden. The al-Qaeda leader has been an inspiring and galvanizing force for Afghan fighters since in the 1980s Soviet invasion, long before the Taliban even existed, and remains a crucial recruiting tool in the ongoing war. But bin Laden would never have accepted peace, which means the Taliban was unable to sell many of its rank-and-file on a negotiated settlement.