Saturday, June 4, 2011

Impact of Bin Laden's Death Still Unknown, Defense Secretary Robert Gates Says

By Jim Garamone, American Forces Press Service

CAMP EGGERS, Afghanistan, June 4, 2011 - It is too early to see if the death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden will have an effect on the fighting in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said here today.

Speaking during a news conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the secretary also said the responsible drawdown of American forces ordered by President Barack Obama will begin next month.

Bin Laden used Afghanistan as a safe haven for years before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. He had years to develop relationships with local Afghans, and he was a particularly close friend with Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Omar.

The drawdown must be cautious to begin, Gates said. "It is too soon yet to see the consequences or meaning of the elimination of bin Laden," he added.

Officials hope that because of the close ties between Mullah Omar and bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader's death at the hands of Navy SEALs in Pakistan will lead to many in the Taliban to walk away from al-Qaida and disavow the organization, the secretary said.

"I think it's too early to tell. My hope is that we would have some indication perhaps later this year of the impact," the secretary said. "But I think the important thing is for us to see through where we are today. We have enjoyed a lot of success over the last year to 18 months. We need to continue that."

If coalition and Afghan forces can continue to hold the territory that has been recaptured in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, then "we will be in a position toward the end of this year to perhaps have an opening with respect to reconciliation, or at least be in a position to say we've turned a corner here in Afghanistan," Gates said.

"I think making any change prior to that time would be premature," he added.

Karzai said he hopes those in the Taliban who are not affiliated with terror groups will "take this opportunity to return to their country in peace and dignity and participate with the rest of the Afghan people in rebuilding their country."

The president said Afghan forces will continue to take on Taliban fighters, but that "the Afghan people would want that this campaign ... does not bring them casualties in the form of more civilians bombarded or night raids that cause deaths to civilians, or detentions of civilians that cause suffering."

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