The Taliban have issued some strange statements over the past 24 hours. Roughly three hours after Afghan High Peace Council Chairman Burhannudin Rabbani was assassinated at his Kabul residence on Tuesday, Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid claimed the assassination on behalf of the Taliban while speaking to a Reuters reporter over the phone. Mujahid called the reporter again later and described in close detail how the operation allegedly played out. According to the Mujahid version of the story, the assassins had gone to Rabbani's home for talks. When Rabbani moved forward to hug Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, a Rabbani aide, the bomber, who was standing nearby, triggered his explosives-laden jacket, Mujahid told Reuters.The resulting explosion killed Rabbani, Taliban militant Wahid Yar and four security guards. Mujahid appears to have struck a sensitive chord with his handlers, and was probably ordered to backtrack.
A day later, Mujahid made another statement, this time published on the Afghan Taliban Voice of Jihad website. Oddly enough, in Wednesday's statement, Mujahid repudiated his earlier claim of the Taliban's responsibility for the Rabbani assassination. Mujahid did not flatly deny that the Taliban carried out the attack, but said information on Rabbani's death was "incomplete" and that the Taliban "cannot say anything on this issue." A message on the Taliban Twitter account @Abalkhi on the same day also denied that Mujahid had spoken to Reuters and, in statements posted online and sent by email, the group accused Reuters of publishing "baseless news." Mujahid appears to have struck a sensitive chord with his handlers, and was probably ordered to backtrack. Reuters then issued an article on the conflicting Mujahid claims. The wire service claimed that Mujahid called a third time on Tuesday to tell the reporter that Taliban leadership was in disagreement over whether to provide the names of those responsible for the attack, as it could create problems for some people in the movement. The Reuters report heavily insinuated that Taliban leadership was divided over the issue. The Rabbani assassination, the report said, was seen by some as "extreme treachery," and as a "severe blow to hopes of a political solution to the violence." So while the Taliban were trying to pin the blame on Reuters for the confusion, Reuters was using Taliban divisions to explain the contradictions.
A New Phase in the War
To even attempt to make sense of any of this, we need to bear in mind that the United States, the Taliban and Pakistan are adjusting to an entirely new phase of the war. So far, that adjustment has been rough. Throughout the course of the war, the United States has had a strategic interest in making the Taliban appear a highly fractious group. This narrative has entailed building up the myth that the Haqqani network
was an outlaw group that neither Pakistan nor the Afghan Taliban leadership were able to rein in, and that Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar was unable to fully control the Afghan militant movement. There is no denying that a number of factions and sub-factions exist within the Pakistan-Taliban-Haqqani network, but the fissures among and within these groups were often exaggerated as the United States tried to discredit its enemy by framing it as weak and divided. Far from minding that image, the Taliban encouraged the perception that multiple factions were operating in an increasingly nebulous militant landscape. This is a common guerrilla tactic in war, one which allows a group to sow confusion for the enemy and maintain plausible deniability in attacks when necessary. Such a perception also allows the guerrilla group to protect its leadership by making it appear to the enemy that decapitating the leadership won’t matter, as there are a dozen other groups ready to operate. But now, we are in a different phase of the war. Pakistan-mediated back-channel negotiations between the United States and the Taliban have started up again and are growing serious. All sides are making their demands known and are working to bring closure to the war. Attacks can be expected to occur in parallel to this process, as the Taliban-Pakistan-Haqqani network attempts to shape its collective negotiating position
, and to increase American desperation to end the fight. The Sept. 12 attack on the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters make a good deal of sense in this regard. The Rabbani assassination makes much less sense. The official story that was pushed out by Mujahid (as well as by Kabul Criminal Investigation department chief Mohammad Zahir) was that Rabbani was engaged in a negotiation with alleged Taliban members when he was killed. It remains unclear whether this was intended to be a routine event for the Afghan High Peace Council member or a more serious peace negotiation, although Reuters seems to be pushing the latter view. If Rabbani was killed while carrying out negotiations, it would carry tremendous implications. No negotiation in wartime is possible without guarantees by both sides on safe conduct and security. The war can go on while the talks take place, but certain designated negotiators are given protection. By openly killing negotiators, the Taliban would be seriously jeopardizing the current negotiating track. The Taliban may feel confident that the United States is desperate to end the war, but Mullah Omar also knows that his involvement in negotiations, even if indirect, place him at risk of having his location traced and becoming a target. If one side breaks the gentleman’s rules in the negotiations process, all bets are off. However, there are no clear indications that Rabbani was conducting a recognized and sanctioned negotiation. The current negotiating track between the United States and Taliban is unlikely at this stage to involve Rabbani on a serious level. It is also unlikely that such a negotiation would take place absent Pakistan. If Rabbani was conducting a serious negotiation, and the Taliban assassinated him, then one could assume that the negotiations blew up with him. We are growing increasingly doubtful that this is what took place. Over the past 24 hours, both Pakistan and Mullah Omar’s representatives have essentially disowned Mujahid in private talks with the United States. Pakistan and the Taliban could be playing a duplicitous game with the United States — trying to distance themselves from the claim of responsibility while quietly backing the attack — but in this phase of the war, such a course of action could carry heavy repercussions.
Shifting Intentions and one Important Question
This is where intelligence gets particularly messy. The United States is currently negotiating with the Taliban on the assumption that Mullah Omar has enough political and operational control over the Afghan militant movement to deliver on a negotiation (with the Pakistanis standing by to ensure the deal and extract strategic benefits in the process). On one hand, the United States cannot suddenly shift its public narrative on the Taliban and Haqqani network, describing as a unified and credible peace negotiator a group it had framed as a highly fractured movement. So operations that have long been in process continue to pump out information through various media assets propagating the established view. On the other hand, the United States, Pakistan and the Taliban are trying to determine each other’s intentions in back-channel negotiations to move talks forward. Caught in the middle are interlocutors, like Mujahid, who are not necessarily keyed into these talks. They continue with business as usual, propagating claims of responsibility, even taking care to embellish stories with odd details — such as the description of Rabbani moving three steps forward before the bomb detonated. We do not know how Mujahid would have learned those details from his home base in Pakistan. We also find it highly unlikely that Mullah Omar would compromise his operational security by communicating regularly with a spokesman in constant contact with Western news agencies. While the side story on the spokesman is interesting, in the end only one question really matters: Who killed Rabbani? The answer would reveal how much of an impact his death will have on the current negotiating track. At this point, we suspect not much, but the best way to answer that question is to understand the precise modus operandi of the attack. That information, curiously enough, is precisely what’s being withheld.