Afghans Hope The Heat Is Off

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"Osama is not dead" says Najib, the man who is driving us through Kabul’s congested, dusty streets. "Most Afghans think he is not dead."

He has reason to believe this — there is no corpse to bury and no prisoner to try. In a country where most people do not have access to the internet’s multiple verifying sources, why couldn’t it be a spectacular hoax?

"I think he really is dead. I think there are even pictures of him dead," I say, although I have not seen them. Najib has. "They don’t look like Osama. And how can we know? The man in the photos, his face is destroyed by the fight." It’s the third day of May, the story has had 24 hours to circulate and sink in.

I first heard the breaking news early Monday morning in Mazar-E-Sharif, the capital of Afghanistan’s northern province, Balkh. We were sitting in the absurdly elaborate rose garden of a guesthouse preparing for a day’s work when the security officer travelling with us received an SMS saying that Afghan President Hamid Karzai was about to announce the death of bin Laden. There were only a few of us there to greet the news with shock and some unease. Mazar-E-Sharif is fresh in our collective memory as the location of the gruesome killing of seven UN workers a month earlier. The UN staff were killed by a crowd of men who, armed with outrage about a pastor burning the Qu’ran in Florida, left the famous Blue Mosque and, finding the US embassy apparently too well secured, proceeded down the street and stormed the UN compound.

So of course, we were wondering whether news of bin Laden’s killing would stir any action locally, but as we stepped out, the streets of Mazar-E-Sharif were coming to life quietly and, as far as we could see from the backseat of the car, it was peaceful.

Our questions about how people felt about the big news were lost in the office. As the details started to emerge, the national staff responded to Osama’s death with mild curiosity not incredulity. When I asked if there might be a public response — protests or retaliation — my Afghan counterpart said that "in Afghanistan, lots of people do not care. At least not enough to protest. They are probably happy he is dead."

So, it seemed to be business as usual in Mazar-E-Sharif on 2 May.

By contrast, the UN in Afghanistan confirmed the complete "White City" lockdown for all staff, effective nationwide. Severe movement restrictions had been in place since Saturday when the Taliban launched the Summer Offensive. The US embassy cancelled all their domestic flights. There were some anxious postings on Facebook as, further afield, President Obama was stepping up to the lectern and New Yorkers were about to take to the streets for an all-nighter.

Dan McNorton, the spokesperson for UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) is understandably cautious and wouldn’t speculate about whether something might "happen" as a result of bin Laden’s death. But he acknowledged that the context of the mission’s current security was based very firmly on the "brutal killing" of UN staff in Mazar-E-Sharif. "We took measures to ensure security was beefed up, including seeking increased support from the government of Afghanistan to provide protection to UN workers here."

People we met with that day in Mazar-E-Sharif — older Afghans proud of their city’s good reputation prior to the killings on 1 April — told us that it is a peaceful city, stable and far from Afghanistan’s more troubled provinces along the border with Pakistan in the South and East.

But Enayat Najafizada, a young journalist working with us, described a prevalent and undermining danger in his home town. "It’s never safe in Mazar-E-Sharif, not for anyone." Like most Afghans, he is used to the lack of stability, potential violence, corruption and the increasing presence of the Taliban in Mazar’s surrounding districts. Today, he doubts it will be more or less dangerous because of the demise of Al Qaeda’s number one.

What interested Najafizada about the event that has captured the world’s attention is what it means for the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He says that the killing of bin Laden so close to Pakistan’s capital Islamabad confirms what Afghans have always maintained and what Karzai reminded the world on Monday: that the roots of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda brand of terrorism are deeply embedded in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan.

Enayat Najafizada says "it gives us Afghans proof and shows the international community that Pakistan is the country that is sending terrorists to Afghanistan. They are training terrorists and killing Afghan people, every day." He believes that Afghans will question why it took so long to find and kill bin Laden, why he was living so close to the capital in Pakistan and adds that importantly, Afghans will question the future plans of Pakistan with regard to Afghanistan. "Pakistan is not committed to help us achieve peace. As a young person, I think it can be progress in terms of bringing peace, but nothing will change until Pakistan and Iran commit to peace in Afghanistan. They can kill 10 Osamas but until that happens, nothing will change here."

Across the country and close to Pakistan, another young journalist expresses similar views. Sami Ghairatmal works for Al Jazeera out of Kandahar, reporting on the regular incidents of violence claimed by the Taliban in the Southern city and province that is regarded as one of Afghanistan’s most dangerous. It was here only last week that hundreds of Taliban operatives, including several senior commanders, escaped from prison. Like Enayat Najafizada, Ghairatmal says the location and nature of the raid confirms that the problem is in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan. While this vindication may be symbolic for Afghans, Ghairatmal sees that a bigger problem for the country may emerge.

"For the coming months and years, the situation will probably be more dangerous, because a lot of the Taliban commanders will now realize it is not safe for them in Pakistan, with the ISI, the Pakistani government and US collaboration. So maybe some of those big guys in Pakistan will come to Afghanistan, to Kandahar to set up the schools where young boys are trained by the Taliban."

He says people in Kandahar are divided in their response to the news. "Some people here actually met Osama, they liked him and are unhappy because they say he was a good person and a Muslim. Others are happy because they say he sponsored the Taliban here, and raised funds for them internationally, so maybe his death will weaken the Taliban. They say, maybe this can end the fight between the Taliban and the US forces."

Pursuing Osama bin Laden was the original justification for the US presence in Afghanistan. It is still unclear what his death means for the Afghan Government and its relationship with the United States and International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF). But while there is a heightened debate on the front pages of the world’s newspapers about US military operations here, employees with US development and humanitarian agencies are also asking what bin Laden’s death means for the US development, construction and security projects that have run parallel to the military operations in Afghanistan for the last decade.

Philip Smucker at the US Agency for International Development (USAID) says the US is not planning to end their projects Afghanistan. "Our stated mission (in 2001) was to eliminate and prevent Al Qaeda strongholds and training camps from cropping up in Afghanistan. On the development side of things, people are still a priority. The mission goes on."

Back in Kabul, I am told that the US embassy held a "quiet" celebration to mark the death of the "big guy" despite increased security concerns. Are they afraid of repercussions? "Fear is offset by the fact that US enemy number one is neutralised," says Smucker. "People were quietly having a lot of drinks last night. It’s understated, there is an understanding that it’s not a celebratory thing. No-one is dancing on his grave, but people were waiting for this."

 

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