KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The killing of Osama bin Laden may weaken al-Qaida's influence on the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Sunday.
Even so, Gen. David Petraeus warned that Afghanistan is still a potential refuge for international terror groups, and al-Qaida is just one of those. He also warned that the April 29 U.S. raid that killed the al-Qaida leader in his Pakistani compound did not spell the end of the NATO battle in Afghanistan, which began after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington with the aim of wiping out al-Qaida and bin Laden.
Interviewed aboard his helicopter by The Associated Press, Petraeus said the strong link between al-Qaida and the Taliban was personal, not organizational.
"The deal between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaida was between Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, not the organizations," Petraeus said as he visited U.S. troops in eastern Afghanistan.
Petraeus said bin Laden's death may make it easier for the Taliban to renounce al-Qaida, a condition for reconciliation talks set by NATO and the Afghan government.
Bin Laden's demise might also weaken al-Qaida from within, Petraeus said, because bin Laden's personality and aura were a key for raising money for the world jihad group, and without him, the group's worldwide network might fall apart under his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
"Ayman al-Zawahiri is no Osama bin Laden," Petraeus said.
Petraeus warned that al-Qaida is only one of a number of international terrorist organizations that would be eager to flood into an unstable Afghanistan if NATO forces left.
"The key is making sure there are no safe havens for those transnational terrorist groups in Afghanistan," Petraeus said. He estimated that between 50 and 100 al-Qaida fighters move back and forth in eastern Afghanistan. He did not give estimates for other groups.
He said one key aspect for the future is tightening security along the border with Pakistan, through a strategy of "defense in depth" that involves layers of checkpoints aimed at catching militants sneaking across the mountainous divide.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai drew an opposite conclusion from the bin Laden raid. He said it showed that the main fight is in Pakistan, not his country. He called for an end to night raids in Afghanistan, when NATO targets militants.
Petraeus said that NATO is working with Karzai to conduct operations within his guidelines.
"He has legitimate, understandable concerns," Petraeus said, "and we have worked hard to show not only that we are listening to his concerns, but that we are taking actions in response." He said Karzai has cooperated closely with NATO forces on the border defense plan.
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