Analysis: Bin Laden death may hasten Afghan settlement

LONDON Tue May 3, 2011 5:04pm EDT

LONDON (Reuters) - 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.

But 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 President (Barack) Obama choosing to take the opportunity," said Joshua Foust at the American Security Project in Washington.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary 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 U.S. 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.

But 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 United States 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 which has acquired new relevance after bin Laden's death, international experts at The Century Foundation said in March 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 which began with the Soviet invasion in 1979.

In a post on The Century Foundation website, 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."

U.S. 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.

REGIONAL RIVALRY

However, while the United States 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.

There is as yet no evidence the Taliban could act as counter-party to a settlement which allowed for power-sharing between insurgents and those now in power in Afghanistan.

Western officials say they do not enjoy enough broad support in Afghanistan to be treated as the kind of representative nationalist insurgency with whom a deal could be struck.

And so far, there are no signs the Taliban would be ready to strike a deal which gave them less than their demands for a withdrawal of foreign troops and imposition of sharia law.

"There are lots of feelers out there, but none of them have yet developed into anything authoritative," said one western official, speaking before the news of bin Laden's death.

The insurgency itself is fragmented, both within the original Taliban movement and between them and other groups like fighters led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the Haqqani network.

So far, the Americans are talking only to representatives of the original Taliban movement, and based on what little has been said about these talks, substantive progress remains elusive.

Western officials and many analysts also say Afghanistan, with a weak central government and big problems of governance, cannot be stabilized easily, even if a political settlement were to be reached. And that leaves it exposed to competing regional powers -- including Pakistan and India.

Islamabad insists it is not aiming to install a Taliban government in Kabul, seeking instead an end to the instability which has spilled over into Pakistan itself.

Pakistani sources have said repeatedly over the past year that it wants a stable Afghanistan -- neither one hostile to its interests, nor a client state run by the Taliban and Pakistan-friendly Pashtuns.

After so many bombings, Pakistan has had what one western official described as an "epiphany" in its attitude to Islamist militants.

But Pakistan has yet to convince many in India.

India has renewed peace talks with Pakistan broken off after the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants.

Bin Laden's death, however, raised worries that it would allow the United States to make a quick exit from Afghanistan.

"Washington will seek plausible reassurances that after it leaves, Afghanistan will not play host to terrorists targeting the United States," said Nitin Pai, founder of Takshashila Institution, an Indian thinktank.

"It might retain some troops and drones in Afghanistan just in case it needs to use a stick. That apart, it will accede to Pakistani demands that Kabul be made over to a pro-Pakistani regime."

(Additional reporting by Sanjeev Miglani in Singapore and Missy Ryan in Washington; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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