reflections

Rabbani Assassination Raises Questions As Negotiations Begin

4 MINS READSep 21, 2011 | 03:12 GMT
It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
On Tuesday, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the High Peace Council in Afghanistan, was assassinated in a suicide attack at his residence. While local and foreign officials confirmed his death, the details surrounding his assassination remain unclear. According to the head of the criminal investigation division of the Kabul police, Mohammad Zahir, Rabbani was meeting two Taliban representatives who were escorted by senior members of the peace council for talks at Rabbani's residence. The Afghan interior ministry confirmed that one of the suicide attackers was arrested. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed responsibility for Rabbani’s assassination approximately three hours after the attack. He said that two Taliban suicide bombers had met Rabbani under the pretext of talks and added that the attack killed the other suicide bomber, along with four of Rabbani’s guards. Mujahid typically claims militant Taliban attacks and reportedly has links with the Haqqani network, an autonomous branch of the Taliban. The U.S.-Taliban negotiating track is still in its developing phases, and now is the time to shape it. Significant gaps remain, however, in the Taliban claims and in the official Afghan statements. The most pressing preliminary unknown is the identity of the attackers. Taliban suicide bombers do not typically rise above the rank of foot soldiers — far short of negotiators with private access to Rabbani. Nor do we know how the two attackers infiltrated the strong layer of security that surrounds Rabbani's residence in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood. The attack comes as U.S.-Taliban negotiations, mediated by Pakistan, are in their initial phases. While we are currently seeing greater coordination between the Pakistan, Taliban and Haqqani triad, several factions within each group may be attempting to derail negotiations to work in their favor. This calls into question why Rabbani would be targeted for an attack. Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, was the president of Afghanistan from 1992-1996. He was overthrown by the Taliban and assumed political leadership of the Northern Alliance, in league with legendary Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. Afghan President Hamid Karzai made Rabbani chairman of the High Peace Council for good reason: Rabbani was well respected as one of the leading mujahideen leaders during the Soviet days. More importantly, as an influential representative of the minority Tajik community, Rabbani could counter resistance from Afghan Tajiks who were opposed to dealing on any level with their Taliban rivals. Rabbani also had his fair share of enemies — he was allegedly deeply involved in the Afghan drug trade, and as one of the main U.S. financial conduits in Afghanistan, he was reportedly taking more than his share of commission from money flows out of the United States. The circumstances of Rabbani's death remain unclear, but we can't help but be reminded of the al Qaeda assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud two days prior to 9/11. Massoud was killed in an intimate setting by a two-man Arab team carrying an explosives-laden video camera under the pretext of conducting an interview. Massoud was a resilient Northern Alliance leader, capable of standing up to the Taliban's political authority — an obstacle that al Qaeda needed to get rid of. Rabbani, who was filling Massoud's shoes as the lead representative of the Tajiks, posed a strategic hurdle to the Taliban. The U.S.-Taliban negotiating track is still in its developing phases, and now is the time to shape it. Rabbani's assassination creates a power vacuum within the factions in the North and allows the Taliban to push their demands for political dominance in any postwar political arrangement. If this is what the Taliban were actually calculating in assassinating Rabbani (and if the Taliban actually carried out this assassination), it leaves the United States in a highly uncomfortable position. As Marine Gen. John Allen, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force put it, the Rabbani assassination represents "another outrageous indicator that, regardless of what Taliban leadership outside the country say, they do not want peace, but rather war." The biggest question moving forward is the assassination's impact on negotiations. The United States has to wonder whether Mullah Omar is a credible negotiator — and whether it can feel safe sending a representative to negotiate with the Taliban. Yet at the end of the day, the United States has no choice but to engage in an unsavory negotiation with the Taliban — and this may be what the Taliban were calculating all along.

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