Taliban, al-Qaeda Flee N. Afghanistan as Morale Collapses with al-Qaeda admission of Bin Laden’s Death

While Usamah Bin Laden’s passing will not destroy al-Qaeda altogether, it is a horrible blow to their morale, despite the bravado in al-Qaeda’s message acknowledging Bin Laden’s death at American hands.

(By the way, for those who insisted that President Obama had to release the photos of Bin Laden’s corpse for the reality of his death to be accepted: well, not so much.)

Some have suggested that the Taliban may sever their ties with al-Qaeda in the wake of the latter’s clear vulnerability and leadership vacuum.

There is evidence of a collapse of morale from Afghanistan. Pajhwok News Agency is reporting that in the wake of the death of Usama bin Laden at the hands of US Navy SEALs, Taliban guerrillas in the northeastern Afghan province of Qunduz are fleeing the province.

It appears that the Taliban were still linked to, and perhaps taking direction from, al-Qaeda, more than most analysts had suspected. It also appears that Bin Laden had more of an operational, strategizing role than we had thought.

If it is true that radicals are fleeing Qunduz, and indeed other provinces as well, and heading for safe havens in places like North Waziristan in Pakistan’s lawless tribal belt, it is likely primarily because they had direct contact with Usama Bin Laden and now fear that information about them is in American hands, since the SEALS captured his hard drives and thumb drives.

The Taliban and a few Arab al-Qaeda started being active in Qunduz about three years ago, in part in an attempt to block supplies for NATO and the US coming through Tajikistan.

Qunduz, with a population of about 800,000, is said to be about one third or more Pashtun in ethnicity, despite being in the north where most Afghans speak Persian. Qunduz city was among the Taliban’s last outposts in the north when they were forced to withdraw to Qandahar in late fall, 2001 as a result of the US air support to the Northern Alliance. Talibanism in Afghanistan has virtually no audience outside the Pashtuns or Pashto-speakers, who are Sunni Muslims, though it is also true that a majority of Pashtuns reject the Taliban and support the Kabul government of Hamid Karzai (a Pashtun) instead.

The strategic and anti-logistics character of the Taliban campaign in Qunduz raises questions about whether Bin Laden and some lieutenants were not actively directing a war against the US, NATO and Karzai.

Agence France Presse has a video report on the impact of Bin Laden’s death on Afghanistan:

23 Responses

  1. Interesting. I noticed that only two hostile KIAs are reported so far this month on iCasualties. That doesn’t sound like much of a spring offensive.

    Perhaps Al Qaeda also played a pretty key role in the transition of the Taliban from direct fire confrontations to IED making / deployment. It could be that with the surge, direct fire confrontations are significantly more dangerous and costly, and that IED attacks and suicide bombing attacks have been stymied because of Al Q. supporters leaving before the spring offensive.

    Theoretically, this could make a big difference, helping to improve stability, speed reconstruction amd economic growth, buy time for increased ANA training, and possibly even increase retention, as the relative threat level to Afghan forces goes down and twice the pay at half the risk starts to sound like a pretty good deal.

    No telling though how much the lack of direct confrontation we seem to be seeing is related to the constant push of Coalition troops throughout the winter and the denying of traditional recruitment grounds vs. the aftereffects of the OBL raid… or simply, the unwillingness to throw themselves into the obvious traps that the coalition have laid for them.

    I suspect the true goal of the surge was basically to buy time for ANA and police growth, combined with reconstruction and economic growth, and the holding and denial of traditional sources of Taliban revenue and recruitment. It sounds to me like those goals may be on the verge of succeeding, and that both the odds and success of reconciliation efforts may increase substantially as a result of how things have unfolded.

    It’s a reminder that even unwise, long, avoidable ground wars are potentially “winnable”, regardless of one’s ideological beliefs… depending, of course, on what your definition of winning actually is.

    • Al-Qaeda and the Taliban will regroup. War is a way of life for these people. We may win the battles, however, we won’t win the war.

      If all of the armies pull out. There will be women stoned to death. The burka’s will be back. Female children will not be allowed to go to school. The tribal wars will resume. Ethnic cleansing will start again. Government corruption will get worse. Police will be murdered, or participate in corruption.

      Bin Laden swore to bankrupt America, and he did. How do you go about changing these peoples mind sets, that have been in place for hundreds of years?

      • America was already bankrupt. If oil were not traded in dollars, the whole country would already be for sale on eBay.

      • Al-Qaeda and the Taliban will regroup. War is a way of life for these people.

        Are you talking about Ay-rabs or about Musselmen when you say “these people?”

        Seriously, I find this “those people have been fighting each other for centuries” to have an unfortunate racist overtone. They said the same thing about the Yugoslav breakup. It’s just the flip side of “These people don’t understand anything but force.”

  2. So if the Taliban are on the run, does that mean the U.S. has to stay as long as it takes to finish them off?

  3. At what point do you believe the Taliban will change into a political party and away from the violence of the last 20 years?

  4. Say, what? What is this? al-Qaeda was so dependent on Usamah Bin Laden that it collapses without him? How can this be?

  5. Qunduz is mainly an Uzbek spot, not a Tajiik one.

    It´s true that the majority of the Pashtuns don´t support the Taliban but that doesn´t imply that they are in tune with Karzai´s government. After several trips to Afghanistan I´ve foudn the local population trapped between two fires: they don´t like the Taliban but neither they see Karzai´s corrupt government and the foreign forces with good eyes.

    On another note, you forget to mention the increasingly growing presence of the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) in Qunduz. With their strongholds in the other side of the border (Tadjikistan) they´re playing havoc in the north of the country.

  6. Dear Juan,

    Actually one of the successes of the Taliban in the last couple of years is their extension beyond Pashtun pockets to reach out to other communities in the North. There are now Uzbek and Tajik Taliban. In my experience, the Pashtun insurgencies seem to be more concerned about local issues – political marginalisation and so on, while the narrative used by non-Pashtun seems more ideological. This development has also been analysed by Giustozzi and Reuter in several papers for the Afghan Analysts Networks, which again in my limited experience, are pretty spot on on many of the dynamics. As for insurgents fleeing from Kunduz, it may have more to do with the last waves of aggressive operations although i would rather suggest that their tactics of engagement have changed, with less direct confrontations.

  7. So, the promise exists that the THREE TRILLION DOLLAR global war on terror can now wind down significantly. Too bad that Republicans, Neo-cons, war mongers and Joseph Lieberman suffered from collective ADD and could not focus on bin Laden, choosing instead to squander america’s resources on Israel’s proxy wars on Iraq (oil exporting nation) and Iran (oil exporting nation).

    If our phony defense minded Republicans et al had been able to keep bin laden in their sights, oil would be less expensive, the dollar more valuable, and the world less dangerous for travel.

    But it’s not us they care about, is it?

    • Well, given the special forces section that Seal Team Six belongs to is only budgeted at one billion $ per year, it does make one wonder how much of the other $699,000,000,000 per year has accomplished anything. Of course, Seal Team Six benefitted from technological and logistical resources from the rest of the military budget, but it shows how hard it is to prove you’re spending money on the right stuff.

  8. Al Quaeda is still a related group? I guess they ‘accomplished’ stuff, but what exactly was the group relation? What exactly is the accomplishment of ENDING relations of consciousness, people to not hear their message, their ‘cultural’ statement? whatever it was/is.

  9. Another Fateful Choice:
    With Osama bin Laden eliminated, the Obama administration has a golden opportunity to discontinue the Bush administrations’ wars. It is time for the US to leave both Afghanistan and Pakistan, neither of which countries supplied a September 11 hijacker, to sort out their internal messes undisturbed. But President Obama made clear, in the same speech that proclaimed bin Laden’s death, that these wars will not end.

  10. It appears that the Taliban were still linked to, and perhaps taking direction from, al-Qaeda, more than most analysts had suspected. It also appears that Bin Laden had more of an operational, strategizing role than we had thought.

    I’m certainly surprised by this, and I daresay that I’m a great deal more supportive of the Af-Pak War than Prof. Cole or most of the readership here. (Not that I’m entirely supportive).

    So, Professor, does this new insight legitimize the last 9 years of American action in Afghanistan at all in your eyes?

    • I have never had a problem with NATO fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, which is counter-terrorism. I am a critic of the counter-insurgency doctrine as applied to the latter because I think it is a white elephant and most unlikely to work.

      • You’ve frequently been a critic of NATO fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, above and beyond the operational question of COIN. As I recall, you’ve frequently made the point for years now that the Taliban in Afghanistan are not al Qaeda, that “there are only 100 al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan,” and now that turns out not to be true.

        Now that you, and I, and the rest of the world, have learned that this distinction is invalid, and that al Qaeda and the Taliban are still closely intertwined, just as they were in late 2001, doesn’t that change anything in your thinking?

        • I don’t think you’ve understood my past postings if that is how you are interpreting them.

  11. I’m confused over the use of the term Taliban. Under Mullah Omar, it was a unified, extremist Islamic government and militia. After their defeat, isn’t the more recent Taliban was a conflation of disparate groups and a tag name for lazy journalists and neo-cons (accent on the cons).

  12. I doubt the events in Kunduz have anything to do Mr. bin Laden’s assassination. There are also fresh Taliban offensives as we write these words. I think the Taliban will be neither strengthened nor weakened, since their base of support is different from that of al-Qaeda.

  13. The Afghan Taliban in the south, on the other hand, have been very active. I wouldn’t bet that this reported “retreat” in the north will last, if it even happened, just because Usama bin Laden was killed. The leaks, which have not been concretely verified, also speak of AQ in the Arabian Peninsula and Somalia. The Afghan Taliban, Haqqanis, and Pakistani Taliban are independent of Al-Qaeda.

  14. Juan, may I ask a basic question, your opinion. Was the taking out of Bin Laden wise? Was it a progressive move toward resolving the conflict? Could this move entirely backfire into making things much worse than they already are? And is there any possibility a May Day Strike would be a good way to start a new election campaign?

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