LONDON – The head of Britain's military said Wednesday the death of Osama bin Laden had left some insurgents in Afghanistan panicked over funding, but he offered few details and warned that it was too early to judge the impact of the terror chief's killing on the conflict.
In testimony to Parliament's defense committee, Gen. David Richards said he now believed that bin Laden had exerted more influence than previously thought from his hideout in Pakistan's Abbottabad. He said that bin Laden's death "breaks the linkages between al-Qaida and the Taliban — which we now know were greater than we thought," but did not elaborate on why his view on bin Laden's role had changed. Richards did not disclose, for example, the extent to which the U.S. has shared intelligence gleaned from materials captured in the raid on bin Laden's compound.
Defense officials said the military chief's belief that links between al-Qaida and the Taliban were greater than previously known was based on a variety of sources, but declined to say whether or not the U.S. had shared material seized from Abbottabad.
Richards said he agreed with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the true impact of bin Laden's death likely won't be known for at least six months, when military analysts can assess any influence on the intensity of Afghanistan's summer fighting season.
But Richards said he already believed that some al-Qaida-linked insurgents have been left jittery about the future.
"He had a psychological effect on some of them, and they are a bit worried that their ability to raise money may be affected," he told the committee.
Richards did not elaborate on any specific knowledge of financial ties between al-Qaida and Afghan insurgents, but officials said he was referring in his testimony to the leader's unique ability to attract money and recruits, because of his global notoriety.
The U.K. believes bin Laden's death means it will inevitably be harder for al-Qaida or other extremists to collect funding, and could also limit the numbers of recruits attracted by join the insurgency in Afghanistan.
Britain's defense secretary Liam Fox will visit the Pentagon and U.S. Central Command later this month to discuss the implications of bin Laden's death on strategy in Afghanistan and the wider Middle East.
Richards told lawmakers that the fact countries like Yemen were now a key battleground in efforts to combat terrorism showed that al-Qaida's ideology was far more important than bin Laden's personal involvement.
"Yemem, Somalia, other places in the Middle East are today more important in a counterterrorism context than what was going on — which appears to be a bit more than we might have thought — in Osama's compound," Richards told legislators.
At the hearing, Britain's military chiefs also acknowledged their understanding of insurgent activity in Afghanistan had sometimes been patchy — particularly before the U.K. sent forces into the restive southern province of Helmand in 2006.
Politicians told the public that troops may not face any serious warfare. Instead, British forces have been engaged in five years of grueling and bloody combat.
Richards said Britain had "turned up a hornet's nest" when they arrived in the province, and had been poorly prepared.
"There was in some respects a failure of intelligence despite the efforts to get it right," Richards told legislators.
Gen. Peter Wall, the head of Britain's army, told the committee that the U.K. had underestimated the strength of the Taliban in the region.
"I absolutely accept that what we found when we had our forces on the ground was starkly different from what we had anticipated and been hoping for," said Wall. "We were ready for an adverse reaction but we did not, to be fair, expect it to be as vehement as it turned out to be."