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How the Afghan war will change after bin Laden's death

world Updated: May 08, 2011 23:51 IST

From the Taliban's hidden mud compounds to NATO's headquarters in Brussels and the Pentagon, combatants in a decade-long war are asking versions of the same question: How does Osama bin Laden's death change the struggle over who will control Afghanistan?

For the Taliban, the jury is still out: they say their insurgency was never solely dependent on Bin Laden, and they could survive his demise, but the American raid that killed him has raised the possibility that even the movement's top leaders may not be safe in Pakistan.

Many leaders in Europe, though, see Laden's death as another reason to pull out of a war they have promised to quit anyway in the next three years. And in Washington believe that Bin Laden's death offers them a unique opportunity to unnerve the Taliban leadership and engage them in a political negotiation they have so far resisted.

"If you are Mullah Omar," one of President Obama's top advisers said of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Afghan Taliban's spiritual leader, who operates from Pakistan, "you've got to wonder whether the next set of helicopters is coming for you."

The mystery now is whether the removal of Bin Laden as the central, mesmerizing figure in the battle between fundamentalists and the West is truly a tipping point, as the White House is betting, or whether it will prove more consequential to the debate in the United States about the pace of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan, set to begin this summer.

That may depend on a series of events that have yet to unfold: whether Al Qaeda strikes back, whether the American military force in Afghanistan remains at its current strength and whether Afghanistan's own military proves more capable than it has been so far in taking the lead in contested areas of the country.

But there is an alternative possibility heard in Kabul: the Taliban may take heart from the death of Laden if they sense that his demise - and Al Qaeda's infighting - is likely to accelerate an American withdrawal from region.