Afghanistan: Where Even the Taliban Don't Care About Bin Laden

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Reuters / Corbis

Taliban fighters in an undisclosed location in Afghanistan, October 30, 2009.

Considering how closely tied their histories have been, the Taliban in Afghanistan have yet to release a statement on the death of Osama bin Laden. The group isn't being uncommunicative; it just doesn't quite know what to say for now. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told TIME: "We have not received any word from our leadership on Osama's death. I can't confirm that he is dead or alive. Because of some security problems, the Taliban has not had much contact with Osama bin Laden for the past 10 years." In a striking show of the divisions that had crept up between the Taliban and bin Laden's organization, Mujahid added that, "The activity of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was unimportant. All activities were and continue to be conducted by the Taliban."

The distinction is one that is not lost on Afghans and may explain why — at least in the capital, even in Pashtun areas most sympathetic to the Taliban — the response to the news of bin Laden's death was so muted in the hours after it was announced. If anything, Afghans exhibited a kind of vindication that the arch-terrorist had been killed by U.S. Special Forces in Abbottabad, a town on the territory of their hated neighbor, Pakistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai echoed that sentiment at a press conference on Monday. "We have said time and again that al-Qaeda sanctuaries do not exist in Afghanistan. Its hideouts are located elsewhere. And the killing of Osama bin Laden has proved that our claim was right," said Karzai.

The President's opinion was shared in most places. At a shop selling prescription eyeglasses, two shopkeepers helped a physician, who was sporting an Afghan flag on his lapel, choose a pair of spectacles as a small color TV played an Indian music video in the background. "Most Afghan politicians have been saying that the terrorists are not in Afghanistan — that they have come from outside our borders. Osama's death in Pakistan is huge proof to the U.S. military — it is proof that our politicians were correct," said the doctor, Arifullah (who goes by one name, like many Afghans), as he tried on the glasses. He has not been able to return to his native province of Kunar on the Pakistani border for the past 13 months because of intense violence there.

Down the street, at a store that has sold President Karzai his trademark lamb's wool caps, the news was blaring full force on an old radio sitting amid a pile of leather scraps and finished hats. The excited voice of the Radio Azadi announcer blared around the unlit shop, paraphrasing Karzai's statements, saying, "The battle is not in our homes, in our villages — it is on our border. We couldn't find Osama in [the provinces of] Kandahar, Mazar, Badakhshan, Bamyan, Kabul, Parwan, Farah, Heart, Ghor or Paktika — he was in Abbottabad."

Compared to the breathless pace of the broadcaster, Sayeed Habib Sadaat calmly repaired an old hat and said, "It is good news. We are happy that Osama is dead. He was the one who helped destroy our country and who carried out attacks around the world. The suicide bombers came from him."

And it was not only presidents, doctors and hat makers who feel they have been proven correct as well as having new-found hopes for peace. "We hope that attacks will decrease. After this, our coordination with Pakistan will become stronger, because Osama was the one who made problems between Afghanistan and Pakistan," predicted Lutfullah Mashal, spokesman for the National Directorate of Security, the country's domestic intelligence agency. "This is good news for all Afghans. We are happy because in the last few years we have been seeing that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are coming from outside our borders. Now we have proof," he told TIME.

Across the different branches of Afghanistan's fragmented government the announcement of bin Laden's death fostered a display of rarely-seen unity. "Right now the international community has to know where terrorism exists. Now they know it exists outside our borders. On one side, the Pakistanis were saying that they are our friend, but on the other side they were supporting Osama bin Laden," said Shukria Barakzai, a member of the lower house of parliament representing Kabul province, by telephone.

This being Afghanistan, there are always those who will question what the truth really is. Indeed, some Afghans continue to doubt the news of bin Laden's death. "This is not the first time Osama has been killed," said a young man sitting in front of a film development shop to a round of laughter by dozens of onlookers in Kart-e-Naw, a neighborhood dominated by Pashtuns, the ethnic majority that is most closely linked with the Taliban. Around the corner, at the Etifaq mosque, girls in white headscarves and boys in white skullcaps ran into and out of the complex's madrasah. At the doorway, Hajji Zar Gulab, a teacher at the school told TIME that, "The teachers and students are saying it is propaganda. It is impossible. I mean, once before, the people on the news were saying that he died in Karachi, Pakistan."

In a country as unreached by news and as rife with conspiracy theories as Afghanistan, it is understandable that some would have a hard time believing that such a famous figure has been killed. A university student compared it to a Bollywood movie. "If they are showing his death on TV, they must have some proof that Osama is dead. So, now, people are just waiting for that. The government and the media must now prove it to the people. Many people were saying that Osama has doubles, like Saddam in Iraq. Other people are saying that is merely a ploy — like in the Hindi films — that he is only pretending he is dead so that he can hatch some new plan," says Esmatullah, a political science student at a local university.

But even if he is still alive, Bin Laden has ceased to be relevant. "In the last two or three years the media in Afghanistan and around the world were not talking about Osama bin Laden," Masoom, a single-named local resident, told TIME in the courtyard of the Etifaq mosque. "He was not important for al-Qaeda. He was not important for the Taliban. He was the leader, but al-Qaeda is not just Osama. They have other leaders and they will continue their activities." However Afghans may differ on bin Laden's fate, they agree on one thing: one man's death will not bring peace to their country.