News of Osama bin Laden’s death certainly cheered the West, but that may not be the limit of the audience for the good news, Joshua Partlow at the Washington Post speculates. The Taliban had a long partnership with bin Laden, and one that had turned out to be a disaster — ten years on the run, while their opponents in Afghanistan got a massive influx of Western money and military support. With bin Laden out of the way, the stark differences in missions for al-Qaeda and the Taliban will put pressure on a relationship that the Taliban may have wanted to end years ago:
In their missives to the world, the Taliban greeted Osama bin Laden’s death as a call to arms — a killing that would incite “waves of jihad.” Privately, many Taliban commanders are probably breathing a sigh of relief.
The ties that bound al-Qaeda and the Taliban were anchored by their two leaders — bin Laden and Mohammad Omar — but the relationship was never seamless. The two groups co-existed despite rivalries and divergent agendas: the Taliban, a largely Pashtun movement focused on grievances within Afghanistan; al-Qaeda, the cosmopolitan Arab visionaries of terrorism with eyes always to the West.
Bin Laden’s death could free up the Taliban to distance itself from al-Qaeda, as U.S. military officials have argued, and allow the group to pursue negotiations with the United States. At the same time, the Taliban could take inspiration from bin Laden’s killing and double down on a fight that appears closer to a conclusion as U.S. officials argue for a speedier American withdrawal after the al-Qaeda chief’s death.
Thus far, of course, the Taliban has reacted in a predictable fashion, threatening death to all infidels, blah blah blah. They have conducted terrorist attacks as reprisals, killing dozens of Pakistanis in one series of bombings and wounding two Americans in a suicide attack on a motorcade two days ago. The raid in Pakistani territory has given the Taliban another convenient excuse for terrorism, and an opportunity to recruit, and they’re not going to pass up on either easily.
Still, the difference in interests between the Taliban and AQ are stark. The Taliban is more interesting in the tribal conflict between Pashtuns and others that comprise Afghanistan’s population than they are in launching a global caliphate. Pashtuns want to rule their corner of the world, which they did until their ally decided to kill 3,000 people in the US. With their personal connection to AQ gone — and with the insular Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri running the show, despite the press releases from AQ recently — the Pashtuns will eventually tire of the Arab agenda that has brought the entire military weight of the Western world on their backs.
When that happens, the most relieved people will probably be the Pakistanis, who won’t have to endure American incursions in their territory any longer. If the Taliban focuses strictly on Afghanistan, it means they will cause less trouble in Pakistan. And if the Taliban sheds their alliance with international terrorism, it will change the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan into a simple civil war, and perhaps push all sides into talks to end it in a manner that allows Pashtuns to accept a democracy in which they can participate, but not dictatorially rule. That will allow everyone to focus more on AQ and stamp out the remainder of that terrorist network.