BEIJING - The death of Osama bin Laden may speed up reconciliation efforts between the Taliban and the Afghan government, Afghanistan's foreign minister said on Wednesday, but he cautioned that it was early days.
Bin Laden was killed last Monday during a raid by the U.S. military in Pakistan, since when the United States has called on the Taliban to abandon al Qaeda and negotiate an end to the war in Afghanistan.
Official sources have said Washington has already begun talks with the Taliban, an effort which is matched, some Afghan analysts say, by a willingness on the part of the Islamist movement to break ties with al Qaeda.
"Our first assessment is very premature," Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul told a forum in Beijing organised by the China Institute of International Studies, a government think tank.
"Our first assessment is that it might help the reconciliation process for different reasons that I'm not going to mention here. But definitely our feeling is that it might help," he said.
Talks so far however have only been preliminary and have not moved beyond the stage of establishing contacts.
President Hamid Karzai wants to reconcile with mid-level Taliban commanders as part of his broader peace plan which includes the transition of security responsibility from foreign forces to Afghan troops by the end of 2014.
The Taliban sheltered bin Laden in Afghanistan for years, leading. U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban regime in late 2001, ushering in a nearly decade-long war between U.S.-led NATO forces and the Islamist group.
Rassoul was vague, however, on whether bin Laden's death would prompt the United States to make a quicker-than-expected exit from Afghanistan.
U.S. President Barack Obama has planned to begin pulling out some of the 100,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in July, despite record violence in the country.
The United States plans to start removing some combat troops in July, with the rest scheduled to be home by the end of 2014.
"The issue is the issue of continued training of Afghan national security forces," Rassoul said, adding that the threat of terrorism would not go away.
Rassoul said bin Laden's death would make the transition process easier "because there's less of a threat to security" and reiterated the Afghan government's stance that Afghans were also victims of bin Laden.
"Our comment is that the elimination of bin Laden is something positive because, before 9/11, the Afghan people were suffering from bin Laden," he said.
"Definitely, it has had a psychological blow on al Qaeda and others. We need to be very careful to follow up and see what is going to be the consequence. The issue of terrorism and extremism is something not faced by Afghanistan alone." (Reuters)