KABUL, Afghanistan – U.S. and NATO officials sought to reassure Afghans on Monday that Usama bin Laden's death will not weaken the international mission in Afghanistan, even as the Afghan president said the successful strike in Pakistan shows that the fight against terrorism should focus more outside his country's borders.
The conflicting statements underscore the confusing nature of the war in Afghanistan, which has vacillated between building up the Afghan state and reducing troops down to small strike forces who just target high-profile terrorist leaders.
When he decided to expand the U.S. military force in Afghanistan in 2009, President Barack Obama said the goal was to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al Qaeda."
Now it's unclear what bin Laden's death will mean for the future of Afghanistan, where about 150,000 NATO troops — most of them American — are embroiled in daily fighting with Taliban insurgents. On Saturday, the Taliban announced the beginning of their spring offensive after having shown their strength by launching a string of deadly attacks from within government and military compounds.
President Hamid Karzai lauded bin Laden's death as a serious blow to terrorism.
"American forces have killed Usama bin Laden, delivering him his due punishment," Karzai told an assembly of district government officials in Kabul, prompting the hall to erupt in applause.
But Karzai also used his speech to again chastise international forces for concentrating so much of their military effort in Afghanistan rather than in neighboring Pakistan, where al-Qaida and Taliban leaders reportedly live.
"For years we have said that the fight against terrorism is not in Afghan villages and houses. It is in safe havens, and today that was shown to be true," Karzai said. "Stop bombarding Afghan villages and searching Afghan people."
His words underscore what many Afghans chafe at — the fact that international allies hold the power in their country even as they worry that without NATO troops Afghanistan would quickly fall back into civil war.
The American ambassador in Kabul promised Afghans that the U.S. will not abandon Afghanistan now that bin Laden has been eliminated.
"This victory will not mark the end of our effort against terrorism. America's strong support for the people of Afghanistan will continue as before," Ambassador Karl Eikenberry said in a statement.
Similarly, NATO said its mission in Afghanistan will continue uninterrupted.
"NATO allies and partners will continue their mission to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for extremism, but develops in peace and security," the alliance said.
A businessman in Kabul province warned that a U.S. departure would be disastrous.
"If the U.S. troops leave in 24 hours the Afghan government will collapse," said Mohammad Qassim Zazai, who sells antiques and carpets in the capital.
But Zazai and a number of other Afghans said the U.S. mission in their country has grown much beyond the search for bin Laden, so they weren't worried that troops will leave more quickly now that he is dead.
"Afghanistan is a very strategic place for U.S. troops. They want to be present in this region, they are discussing having permanent bases," said Abdul Satar Kahawsi, a parliamentarian from eastern Parwan province. Kahawsi said few Afghans even believe that the announced July drawdown of troops will really be significant because of Afghanistan's proximity to Pakistan and Iran.
Karzai pledged that Afghanistan stands ready to do its part to help fight terrorists and extremists.
"Usama bin Laden was someone whose hands were dipped in the blood of thousands and thousands of Afghanistan's children, youth and elders," Karzai told reporters outside the building where he gave his speech.
Some Afghans said they hoped bin Laden's death would make it easier for the Taliban — which has long had its fate tied to that of the Al Qaeda leader — to reconcile with the Afghan government.
"I think that now the Taliban will be free to make their own decision, and maybe these peace negotiations will finally have some success. They are also Afghan and we can't fight with them forever," said Agha Lalai, a member of the government council for southern Kandahar province.
An elderly man in Kandahar city who said he remembered when bin Laden arrived there under the protection of the Taliban said that bin Laden had manipulated the Taliban and hoped that they would now be able to sever ties with al-Qaida.
"All the power belonged to bin Laden and Mullah Omar was just a front," said Ahmad Sarhadi from his home in Kandahar. He was referring to Mullah Mohammad Omar, the reclusive one-eyed leader of the Taliban.
Karzai's former presidential challenger — Abdullah Abdullah — said those who were celebrating bin Laden's demise as the end of Afghanistan's conflict were speaking very prematurely.
"Now there are multiple terror networks and the Taliban will not give up. They don't believe in participating in a democratic system, but rather they are hoping to bring it down, so it will not have an impact on reconciliation as such," Abdullah said. He did add that he hoped that bin Laden's death would weaken the Taliban, and therefore improve the prospects for peace by defeating the insurgent group.
In a sign of the complicated struggle in Afghanistan, there were Afghans who said they had revered bin Laden as a defender of Islam. One man, a rickshaw driver in the eastern city of Jalalabad, said that many people there are happy that a major terrorist has been eliminated but also upset about the death of a man that they saw as a holy warrior.
"He was like a hero in the Muslim world," said Sayed Jalal. "His struggle was always against non-Muslims and infidels, and against superpowers."