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Without bin Laden, Taliban may talk peace

- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 8, 2011

Osama bin Laden's death in a U.S. commando raid could shock Taliban militants, who once sheltered the al Qaeda leader, into peace talks with the Afghan government, according to Afghanistan's ambassador in Washington.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Ambassador Eklil Hakimi also urged the White House to resist calls to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan prematurely and warned that al Qaeda is still a threat.

Killing bin Laden should be a "good lesson" for the Taliban, Mr. Hakimi said.

"[Bin Laden's death] created the hope for leadership of the Taliban to join the reconciliation and reintegration process," he added.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has set three conditions for reconciliation of Taliban militants: They must lay down their arms, renounce al Qaeda and respect the Afghan Constitution. The reconciliation process has had limited success.

Over the weekend, the Taliban claimed responsibility for at least six suicide bombers, who killed four people and injured dozens in Kandahar, the second-largest city in Afghanistan.

Mr. Karzai said the attack was "revenge" for bin Laden's death.

However, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Gen. James B. Laster, a spokesman for U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan, said the violence "clearly was intended to be a spring offensive spectacular attack."

Bin Laden's death has prompted calls from some in Congress for the Obama administration to accelerate its withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

"I think there's going to be a lot of strong feeling on the part of most Democrats and many ... and even some Republicans that the decision of the president to reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan should be a robust reduction," Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said last week.

President Obama has committed to starting a troop withdrawal in July.

Mr. Hakimi urged the administration to resist the temptation to abandon Afghanistan, as Washington did after U.S.-backed rebels defeated a Soviet occupation army in 1989.

He also noted that Afghanistan became less important to the United States after U.S. attention shifted to Iraq in 2003. U.S. forces toppled the Taliban, when it refused to give up bin Laden after the al Qaeda leader planned the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

"We all witnessed the consequences of those decisions," he said.

Mr. Hakimi described bin Laden as a "symbolic leader" and warned that al Qaeda remains active despite his death.

"At the end of the day, we will come to the conclusion that getting only a symbolic leader without dealing with the [terrorist] network is something that we should be careful about," Mr. Hakimi said.

"We want to stress, the job is not done yet," he added.

Michael Semple, a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, said he has heard from many members of the Taliban who now say they doubt the wisdom of prolonging their military campaign against the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Bin Laden's death is "prompting a reassessment in the Taliban of the long-term viability of their military strategy, which was, broadly, to ride out the U.S. military intervention," he said.

"They would like to see a political way of moving forward, and they will see [bin Laden's death] as an opportunity," said Mr. Semple, who served as the deputy to the European Union's envoy to Afghanistan from 2004 until 2007.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a gathering of editorial writers last week that bin Laden's death "opens possibilities for dealing with the Taliban that did not exist before."

The al Qaeda leader was killed in an early morning raid on his hide-out last week in Abbottabad, a garrison town 30 miles from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. The compound in which bin Laden had been hiding is located less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul - Pakistan's equivalent of West Point.

Mr. Hakimi said he was not surprised to learn that bin Laden had been living in Pakistan. He said he thinks that bin Laden's deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, is also outside Afghanistan.

"It proves the position of Afghanistan for years and years that the safe havens and leadership of al Qaeda and other terrorist networks are outside Afghanistan," he said.

"We Afghans know our country and region better and expect our international friends and allies to listen to us."

The Afghan Taliban leadershipis dependent on the same safe havens in Pakistan on which bin Laden relied.

"I believe that every Taliban leader in the past few days has been thinking, 'Who's next?' " Mr. Semple said.

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