Leading article: Withdrawal must now be the priority

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The future of US relations with Pakistan is one aspect of the fallout from the killing of Osama bin Laden. Speaking yesterday, the country's Prime Minister insistedthat Pakistan was neither complicit norincompetent, and had known as little as anyone about the whereabouts of the head of al-Qa'ida. The intelligence failure, he said, was not specific to Pakistan; it was international.

The truth of that disclaimer remains to be judged. But another equally significant aspect of the fallout from Bin Laden's death is the future of the war in Afghanistan. Bin Laden's links with the Afghan Taliban and the assumption that he was sheltering in the border region with Pakistan lay behind the West's military intervention after the attacks of 9/11. His death in Abbottabad, where he appears to have lived for several years, calls into question the rationale if not for the war itself, then for prolonging it.

Popular though an immediate withdrawal might be with the war-weary public either side of the Atlantic, however, it would be irresponsible just to declare the mission accomplished and leave. This is because the intervention went far beyond the (vain) search for Bin Laden and aimed to eliminate the Taliban as a force ever likely to return to government. A precipitate withdrawal would risk leaving the country in almost as much disorder as it was 10 years ago, with the difference that the Taliban then were in full retreat, whereas now they are returning – most recently, and most spectacularly, to Kandahar.

More realistically, Bin Laden's death offers the West a pretext for altering its priorities, so that talking takes precedence over fighting. Efforts should be made to reinstate the original timetable set by President Obama, with withdrawal to start this July. To that end, talks must be convened urgently between President Karzai's government and Taliban representatives. Until now, moves to include the so-called "moderate" Taliban have had negligible results, if only because of US military misgivings. With al-Qa'ida decapitated, those fears should be subordinated to the imperative of reaching a settlement – as the precursor to a speedy Western withdrawal.

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