Rabbani's Killing Pushes Peace with the Taliban Further Out of Reach

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S. Sabawoon / EPA

Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan President who later led the High Peace Council, was assassinated on Sept. 20, 2011

For the second time in a week, Kabul on Tuesday was the scene of a high-profile attack against the Afghan government, with the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the High Peace Council, the body responsible for negotiations with the Taliban. The killing has left many worried that Afghanistan's slim chances for peace have just gotten slimmer. Just as they did when insurgent fighters attacked Afghan government, NATO and U.S. embassy compounds with rockets on Sept. 13, security forces closed the road through the capital's main diplomatic enclave, which runs in front of Rabbani's compound. Green trucks carrying dozens of police officers roared in through the dark, their blue lights flashing silently, accompanying unmarked SUVs full of Afghan men in suits and pakols, the traditional woolen cap worn across northern Afghanistan.

And on Wednesday morning, it is the north of Afghanistan that is in an uproar over the killing of Rabbani — a prominent Tajik Northern Alliance mujahedin leader and former President who ruled during the country's bloody civil war. "Another alert for the Northern Alliance — wake up and make smarter decisions. You are being kicked out of the game gradually and you guys are still just running around," wrote one Afghan on his Facebook page, commenting on the wave of recent Taliban assassinations of northern leaders. "I do not know what the hell they're waiting for???????" wrote another. Only one other comment on the page voiced a view sympathetic to many in Afghanistan's Pashtun-majority south: "It's not about any specific group, it's a dirt-cleaning mission. We have to get rid of all these killers who halted our growth for decades while their own sons ... got masters [degrees] in [the] West."

The posts show not only the prominent ethnic divisions in Afghanistan but also growing fears that reconciliation with the Taliban, the job of the now leaderless High Peace Council, has become much harder. "With this attack, the Taliban sent a clear message that they don't want to reconcile," says Wahid Mujda, a former official in the Taliban government and now an analyst at the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. He also sees Rabbani's killing as a warning: "It is a clear message to other jihadi leaders that no matter how well respected they are, if they don't distance themselves from the government, they will be assassinated. The Taliban have all the time in the world and they can wait, especially since there is a deadline for the withdrawal of [foreign] troops."

That view was echoed by Shukria Barakzai, a prominent member of parliament, who arrived on the scene just after the attack. Standing under the glare of dozens of TV cameras outside the police cordon around Rabbani's compound, Barakzai characterized the killing as "a huge blow to the peace process." General John Allen, the American head of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan said, "The face of the peace initiative has been attacked."

For many in Afghanistan, the Taliban's targeting of Rabbani was a foregone conclusion. During his term as President, from 1992 to '96, Rabbani oversaw the brutal civil war between rival warlords — fighting which eventually spawned the rise of the Taliban in the country's Pashtun south that sought and achieved an end to the war. Afghan President Hamid Karzai's appointment of Rabbani to head the High Peace Council was perceived as a way to pull the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance — particularly Rabbani's powerful Jamiat-e-Islami party — into the current peace process. But Rabbani may have simply seen the position as a way to insert himself back into national politics after years away, and also as a way to increase his power — the High Peace Council helps administer a reintegration fund totaling $200 million, according to some estimates. But only a few weeks ago, Rabbani voiced his frustration to the Afghan media that the Taliban would never soften their position.

The assassination — which was carried out by two Taliban fighters carrying bombs in their turbans and posing as insurgents seeking to speak to Rabbani about reconciliation, according to the Afghan press — has not only reaffirmed the Taliban's unwillingness to negotiate until foreign troops leave, but may also spur on an even bloodier civil war after the proposed 2014 withdrawal of those troops.

"After the assassination of Rabbani, more people will listen to anti-Taliban figures who are very critical of the whole peace process," says Haroun Mir, a former adviser to slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud and now a Kabul-based political analyst. "Now that they have been convinced that government forces cannot protect them, they will rely more on their own people and small armed groups, which will create more challenges and problems for the transition process." In a bleak allusion to the likelihood of future violence, Mir adds, "Rabbani's assassination will force Northern Alliance leaders to plan new strategies. Only time will tell what those new strategies will be."
With reporting by Habib Zahori