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Bin Laden Is Gone -- But Afghanistan Can Still Be Lost

Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2

Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2

The Afghans have an old proverb: “The world will not find rest just by saying ‘peace.’” They should know. They’ve been suffering war for so long that they are probably justified in wondering whether the death of Osama bin Laden will really mean an end to the fighting that has been tearing their country apart.

Nearly 10,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in the past four years alone -- and that’s not to mention the thousands of other victims before 9/11. So many Afghans were disappointed when U.S. President Barack Obama failed to acknowledge their plight in his remarks after bin Laden’s death.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai was quick to pick up on the slight. “Afghanistan has endured countless sacrifices in the war against terrorism…. I hope the U.S., Western countries and the world as a whole may honor and recognize these sacrifices of the Afghan nation.”

There is no question that most Afghans were relieved to hear of the Al-Qaeda leader’s demise. But the collective sense of relief is tempered by anxiety that the United States and its allies, having dispatched the man who brought them into Afghanistan in the first place, may now be plotting an all-out disengagement from the country.

Concerns About A 'Quick Peace'

The worry among many Afghans is that the United States will seize the opportunity to make a quick peace with the Taliban, push for their inclusion in the Kabul government, and then pull out of its military operations and nation-building commitment. U.S. Senator George David Aiken is widely believed to have proposed a similar approach during the Vietnam War: “Declare victory and go home.”

America’s recent show of support for a British proposal to integrate the Taliban into the Afghan power structure has given many Afghans cause for alarm. The British have long believed that the only way out of the Afghan quagmire is to bring the Taliban into the government. This plan hinges on the hope that Pakistan would exercise a measure of control over the Pashtun areas through the Taliban in Kabul, while the bulk of Western attention would shift to the relatively peaceful northern regions.

President Karzai and his fellow power-holders might welcome such a deal as the only practical means left to guarantee their positions. But the reaction by non-Pashtun Afghans might be to embark on their own de facto separation from the Pashtun-majority south. Some elements in the political opposition in Kabul are already lobbying Western capitals for support of a north-south partition scheme through which they are hoping to become the dominant shareholder in the power structure -- and there are indications suggesting that some in Western capitals might welcome a “Balkan solution” along these lines.

Such partition would be a disaster. Afghanistan is not Yugoslavia. In fact Afghanistan’s various groups are too intermingled to allow them to be parceled up into ethnically based cantonments. And, contrary to popular belief in the West, many Afghans still retain a strong sense of loyalty to the idea of a unified state. Such an approach is likely to meet fierce resistance, spurring a descent back into internecine conflict. Afghanistan could find itself returning to the chaos of the mid-1990s, and bin Laden’s inheritors will once again have a base from which to continue their slain leader’s mission.

Osama bin Laden’s enduring legacy in Afghanistan was the introduction of a culture of extremism and terror, and even in death he will continue serving as a symbol of defiance to Western imperialism for tens of thousands of disgruntled, disenfranchised young Afghans. A number of reports say that bin Laden was among the myriad private individuals who were funding the resurgence of the Taliban. Most Afghan experts even claim that the neo-Taliban pose a more immediate and far graver threat to security conditions in Afghanistan than Al-Qaeda ever did. Straying from the original commitment to help Afghans get back on their feet will, in effect, be viewed as classic imperialist behavior.

'Beheading Strategy'

By many reliable accounts, America’s recent “beheading strategy” -- the targeted killings of the top leaders of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban -- has caused the insurgency to metastasize. Hundreds of members of “the franchise” are now on the loose, keen to outdo one another in acts of violence. Insurgent attacks across the country continue at the rate of about 30 per day, an increase from last year. NATO officials have said they expect a particularly violent spring and summer as insurgents try to reclaim areas taken over by international troops over the winter.

Given this situation, the practical effect of a premature pullout would essentially leave Afghanistan to Islamabad's tender graces. Despite its continued support of the most zealous extremist Afghan warlords --whether Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or Sirajuddin Haqqani -- Pakistan was for over a decade hailed by America as a reliable partner in the global war on terror. That bin Laden was finally found and exterminated in Abbottabad, a town 50 kilometers north of the Pakistani capital, is a slap in the face to all those who had earnestly fought in that war. It remains to be seen whether this will prompt the United States and other Western powers to confront Pakistan’s complicity, reassess their strategic relationship with Pakistan, or simply overlook it for practical concerns.

A prudent move by the United States would be to stop treating Islamabad with kid gloves and, instead, to use all measures to force Pakistan to begin handing over other notorious extremist figures who have found safe haven within its borders, including those who wreak havoc on Afghanistan’s prospects for stability, peace, and normalcy.

If the primary objective of the U.S.-led wars of the past nine years was to rid the world of the scourge of terrorism, rather than to score a symbolic victory by exacting revenge against a single individual, then the United States and its allies must stay in Afghanistan and pay even more attention to the efforts so often derided as “nation-building.” This would mean strengthening institutions, ensuring sustainable economic development and insisting upon good governance. Only in this manner can the factors that have strengthened the Taliban be eradicated.

There must also be genuine effort toward optimizing the efficiency of the Afghan National Security Forces. Forming local militias is a dangerous quick fix. When foreign aid stops pouring in and the Afghan government is not able to afford them on its own, such groups are likely to turn into criminal gangs.

In sum, using the elimination of Osama bin Laden to pave the way toward power-sharing with the Taliban, disengagement from nation building, and a precipitous withdrawal of international forces is a short-sighted recipe that serves only the goals of leaders who want to win in the next round of elections in Washington and London. The end of bin Laden is, perhaps, a start. But for the average Afghan in Kabul, Helmand, and Kunduz, there is still a long way to go before the world is a better place.

Helena Malikyar specializes in Afghan state-building. Tanya Goudsouzian is a journalist who has covered Afghanistan since 2001. The views expressed in this commentary are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.