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Bin Laden's death unlikely to affect Afghan rebels

The death of Osama bin Laden, and any disarray it may leave in the senior al-Qaeda leadership, are unlikely to hamper the killing power of Afghan insurgent groups as they ramp up for the warm-weather fighting season, according to military sources and other experts.

Al-Qaeda commanders are present in the eastern region of the country along the mountainous border with Pakistan, and some co-ordinate with local bands of Afghan insurgents.

Yet their numbers are small and they have not managed to gain traction or momentum, according to officers with the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, as the American-led NATO mission is called.

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ISAF officials have said al-Qaeda operatives in the eastern border area provide services, such has helping bring foreign fighters into Afghanistan. Foreign fighters have been killed in the eastern provinces of Kunar and Nuristan after crossing over from Pakistan's tribal region, but they are generally considered fellow travellers of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban rather than al-Qaeda operatives.

"There is a very, very low number of al-Qaeda and we are not seeing an increase," said U.S. Army Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Seiber, the spokesman for the ISAF eastern command.

The Taliban describes itself as a national movement fighting to evict infidel foreign forces from Afghanistan, rather than part of the global jihad espoused by al-Qaeda. While the group harboured Mr. bin Laden and his terror training camps during its five years in power, former Taliban officials have insisted he was simply a guest and not a partner.

With Mr. bin Laden's death, though, Taliban leaders now appear unsure how to react. On Tuesday, they issued a statement saying only that they would comment when they had confirmation of his death "from sources close to Osama."

On the battlefield, military experts say, ideological and, in some cases, operational links have developed among al-Qaeda, the Taliban and the stew of other militant groups that are fighting in Afghanistan.

Some of those groups have their own national identity, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that operates in the northern part of the country. The Afghan Haqqani network is said to answer to the senior Taliban leadership, but acts exclusively in the eastern part of the country. A third Afghan force, Hezb-e Islami, operates independently of the Taliban and is reported to run its own military training camp at an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan.

Al-Qaeda does field small-sized units of up to 10 men in some districts in the eastern border regions, according to Bill Roggio, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. It also has integrated its leadership in those areas with the Taliban, but its operatives fight alongside local and regional Taliban.

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But the death of Mr. bin Laden will not impact the effectiveness of the Afghan insurgency because these groups have their own strong networks and income sources.

"Al-Qaeda serves as a 'force multiplier' for the Taliban in Afghanistan," said Mr. Roggio, who is also the managing editor of the online site, the Long War Journal. "They essentially serve as the insurgency's version of embedded military trainers - they impart knowledge on local forces, facilitate the movement of weapons and explosives and fight alongside the Taliban against Afghan and coalition forces."

Afghan government officials are hoping that Taliban leaders at least draw a lesson from the long and ultimately successful U.S. manhunt for Mr. bin Laden, and consider negotiating an end to the war.

"I don't think his death has a big effect on our Afghan Taliban and they're the ones we are talking to," said Arsullah Rahmani, a former Taliban deputy minister who has joined the government as a peace envoy. "I plead with them to come and negotiate or they could face the same fate."

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Foreign Editor

Susan Sachs is a former Foreign Editor of The Globe and Mail.Ms. Sachs was previously the Afghanistan correspondent for the newspaper, and covered the Middle East and European issues based in Paris. More

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