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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

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(Published in on May 3, 2011, retrieved from

Osama bin Laden may have been gunned down, but it isn't yet Mission Accomplished for the United States in Afghanistan, says South Asia expert Ahmad K Majidyar, Senior Research Associate at The American Enterprise Institute for Policy Research. In an exclusive interview with Nandini Krishnan, Majidyar says an early American exit from Afghanistan will lead to the al Qaeda coming back and result in the destabilisation and radicalisation of Pakistan.

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On initial reactions

When did you first hear of Osama's death?

I was watching Donald Trump's reality show, "The Celebrity Apprentice," on NBC when the broadcaster cut the show to report on the death of bin Laden.

Is it possible to tell us how this happened? Was it Americans who got hold of the information, or was there a mole in Osama's coterie, or are they being completely silent about this?

The operation was conducted by the US Special Forces from the elite Navy Seal Team Six. The operation was as a result of four years of intelligence gathering. The Pakistani government was informed of the operation once US forces left the country's airspace.

What was your personal reaction to the death? Am I correct in thinking that Dari speakers have always been wary of the Taliban regime and of Osama's influence on them, even while they had some sympathy in the early days from the Pashto-speakers?

My personal reaction was a sigh of relief. Bin Laden was responsible for the death of thousands of innocent Afghan civilians. He was the man who introduced suicide bombings in Afghanistan, a phenomenon alien to the Afghan history and culture previously.

Osama was a despised figure among all ethnic groups in Afghanistan, including the Pashtuns.

On Pakistan's double game

Afghanistan has been saying for a long time that Osama must be hiding in Pakistan, and yet the war in the country has gone on for ten years, and the Allied troops intend to stay on, though he WAS in fact found in Pakistan.

Afghan leaders feel vindicated as their longtime claim that Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders enjoy safe haven in Pakistan was proven.

In coming days, we will see Afghan leaders put pressure on the US and NATO forces to scale back operations inside Afghanistan and focus instead on eliminating terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan.

Do you think Bin Laden's death will have an impact on the war in Afghanistan?

The death of bin Laden will definitely have a great psychological impact on the Taliban and it will boost the morale of foreign and Afghan forces fighting in the country.

But it will not play a decisive role in shaping the outcome of war there. Despite close ties with Al Qaeda, the Taliban did not operate under the leadership of bin Laden.

On the contrary, we will see more intense fighting in Afghanistan in the months ahead. On Saturday, the Taliban announced their long-awaited spring offensive, and (now) they have vowed to avenge the death of bin Laden as well. So we will see more spectacular attacks and suicide bombings in the coming days.

Is there a sense of resentment among Afghans that the American attempt to find Osama killed so many people in that country, despite Karzai's office saying repeatedly that Osama was in Pakistan?

The Afghans have repeatedly voiced frustration with the United States for not forcing Pakistan to eliminate the terrorist sanctuaries on its soil.

Afghan leaders are dismayed that Pakistan plays a double game in Afghanistan but the United States still treats Pakistan as an ally in the war in terrorism.

The killing of bin Laden further proves the Afghans' claims that the root of terrorism is inside Pakistan and that Afghanistan is only the action theatre.

On ISI and 26/11

Do you feel Pakistan has been playing a far more sinister role in fostering terrorism in the North West Frontier region than the West realises? Do you think the relationship with the US will change now, or will America continue to treat Pakistan as an ally?

Pakistan has used terrorism as a state policy for its 'strategic depth' in Afghanistan and Kashmir over the past three decades.

Pakistan was the chief supporter of the Taliban in the 1990s, has refused to cut ties with the terrorist group since the Taliban's fall in late 2001, and has continued to actively fund, train and protect terrorist groups in its territory.

There has been a growing understanding in the US government in recent years about Pakistan's destabilising role in Afghanistan and its support for terrorist groups, but Washington has failed to force Pakistan to change its policy.

The relationship between Washington and Islamabad is at its lowest point. The arrest of CIA contractor Raymond Davis and the Pakistani leaders' condemnation of US drone attacks in the tribal areas have seriously undermined ties between the two countries.

The bin Laden episode will further strain relations between them. It is time for Washington to cut aid to Pakistan if it fails to act on terrorist groups on its soil.

How do you see this affecting the India-Pakistan relationship, especially with the US being an interested party in 26/11? Do you think it will be accepted that Pakistan is sheltering terrorists?

Until Pakistan rethinks its policy on terrorism, diplomatic efforts between Islamabad and New Delhi will not progress. All diplomatic engagement will fall apart should there be another terrorist attack in India originating from Pakistan.

Instead of focusing on fighting terrorism, the Pakistani government is trying to double its nuclear arsenal which indicates the Pakistani military establishment has no intention of settling decades of hostility towards India.

In his testimony, Pakistani American terrorist David Headley told the FBI that the ISI's involvement in the 2008 Mumbai attack went as far as 'choosing the weapons to be used in the attack.' Moreover, the Pakistani government continues to support anti-India terrorist groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT).

Do you believe there are elements in Pakistan's government which are trusted allies of the Al Qaeda and Taliban? Or is that improbable? Would you say that there is only popular support among certain sections of the public?

Supporting the Afghan Taliban is the official policy of Pakistan's army and intelligence service.

While the Army has taken action against the Pakistani Taliban that fight the Pakistani government, it has given a free rein to the Afghan Taliban and terrorist groups in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas that are fighting against the Afghan and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani Army treats the Haqqani Network, for example, as a 'strategic asset.' There has been no Pakistani operations against Mullah Omar's shura based in the city of Quetta.

There are trusted allies of the al Qaeda and Taliban within the Pakistani government. Many former military generals and ex-ISI officials publicly defend the Taliban and despise the United States. Former ISI chief Gen. Hamid Gul, for example, freely and publicly campaigns for the cause of terrorists against the United States.

How do you think this will affect Barack Obama's popularity, ahead of the elections next year? Even before he announced his candidature, as a Senator, he had spoken of how America should not be fighting in Iraq, and should be focusing on Pakistan instead.

The killing of bin Laden will definitely help Obama in the upcoming elections. But Obama's overall strategy vis-à-vis Pakistan has not been a successful one.

Despite his pre-election rhetoric, Obama failed to pressure Pakistan to change its policy. The killing of bin Laden was carried out by US special operations forces without the knowledge of the Pakistani government.

It did not hapen as a result of years of diplomacy and financial assistance to Islamabad and Rawalpindi.

Osama the martyr

Osama was the popular face of 'jihad'. He was seen as an ideologue with universal appeal among terrorist organizations. Does his death change the strategic balance of power, or are the Al Qaeda franchises too deeply rooted for this to affect them badly?

Osama was an iconic figure not just for al Qaeda but also for many other terrorist groups in South Asia and the Middle East. His death will have tremendous psychological impact on his followers, but it will not lead to the collapse of al Qaeda.

Under increasing US counterterrorism operations, al Qaeda over years has changed into a more decentralised organisation which minimises the damage to the leadership and operational capabilities of the group.

Will it depress morale, or be used as a 'martyr' factor? Do you expect to see a backlash now?

It will weaken the terrorist leaders confidence, but Osama will be remembered as a martyr by his followers.

'Now he is the number one martyr for al Qaeda because he is stronger dead than alive,' one Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan said on Monday. Al Qaeda and its allies will try to retaliate in the near future to project power. Both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have vowed revenge for his killing.

Afghanistan has been trying to split the Taliban from Al Qaeda for a long time. Do you think the government has been successful at that?

Not at all. Quite the opposite, the Taliban is more closely associated with al Qaeda now than any time before. The Taliban has largely ignored the Afghan government's pleas to cut ties with al Qaeda and join the peace process.

The new young leaders of the Taliban are more hard-line, more repressive and more closely associated with the al Qaeda ideology.

Do you think the death came a few years too late to be effective? He was hugely popular a few years ago, with trinkets being sold in open market places, but he seems to have slowly disappeared.

Bin Laden remained a popular leader amongst the radical groups. His death is symbolically and psychologically important.

On whether we can think 'Mission Accomplished'

Over the last several years, Osama was not controlling day-to-day operations. Do you believe Osama was marginalised due to security concerns, or because he and others had decided he would be the face, and the brain could be other people?

Increasing counterterrorism operations had made it difficult for Osama to directly oversee the day-to-day activities of al Qaeda. The group therefore became more decentralised.

Today's al Qaeda is more like a network of ideologically-related terrorist groups, each independent in its decision-making and operations.

How is the death of Osama being perceived in the West? Do people see it as an end to terror? Do you think they are mistaken?

Unfortunately, many in the United States see his death as the 'mission accomplished' and call for withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This will be a huge mistake. A premature withdrawal will pave the way for al Qaeda's comeback into Afghanistan.

The Afghan government is not yet able to fight the Taliban and al Qaeda on its own. An early exit from Afghanistan will also result in destabilisation and radicalisation of Pakistan.

You live in Washington D.C. We've seen the pictures, but can you describe the mood?

It was a great night of celebration in Washington, D.C. People began to march towards the White House around 11 p.m. And as President Obama officially announced bin Laden's death around 11:45 p.m, the gathering erupted in celebration, hoisting the American flag and singing the national anthem.

Young students and cheerleaders were shouting, 'USA, USA!' The news provided relief to the families of 9/11 victims. But there are still a few who have doubts about bin Laden's death and hold different conspiracy theories.

Ahmad K Majidyar is an expert on political and security affairs in South Asia and the Middle East, with a special focus on Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. He travels frequently to military bases across the United States to instruct senior US Army and Marine officers about culture, religion, and domestic politics in Afghanistan, and about terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan.


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