Afghan Statesman’s Death a Setback for Reconciliation

The death of Afghanistan’s former president appears to leave little chance of resuming peace talks with the Taliban.

Like most heads of state present in New York City this week, Afghan president Hamid Karzai will address the United Nations General Assembly on the progress (or lack thereof) in his country’s political transition. 

The war in Afghanistan may have taken a leap back in terms of press coverage and public attention as a Palestinian bid for statehood dominates this year’s session. The annual meeting at United Nations headquarter, and the few days of diplomatic meetings that occur on the sidelines of the conference, would have been a great opportunity for Karzai to regain some of that attention, particularly as his American and NATO partners are preparing to depart completely from his country in 2014.

But Karzai’s schedule took a sudden turn for the worse when one of Afghanistan’s eldest statesman, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, was killed by an insurgent suicide bomber at his home in Kabul on Tuesday.

The attack was attributed to the Pakistani Taliban. If they were responsible, it would seem to signal the insurgency’s distaste for any peace accord while international troops are operating on Afghan soil. But the intricacies and delicacy of the plot — the man who strapped the bomb to his turban was reportedly communicating with Rabbani for months — suggests that the Haqqani network or even Al Qaeda may just as well have been responsible.

Assassinating top Afghan government officials is a type of attack that the Haqqanis have orchestrated in the past, in addition to brazen and complex suicide operations in the center of Afghanistan’s capital. The mere fact that Rabbani’s death was attributed to a suicide bomber automatically puts Al Qaeda’s core structure on the radar. Al Qaeda in Pakistan has been badgered by American drones for years, leading to the killing of its top deputies and planners. Murdering a popular Afghan politician would put them back in the spotlight, at least in the short term.

Whoever was responsible may not matter in the end. Rabbani’s death is sure to kill any immediate openings for peace between Afghan government representatives and Taliban commanders. Newspapers are already claiming that the Afghan peace process is now pretty much dead. Yet these headlines assume that the High Peace Council formed by Karzai and made to draw Taliban fighters in from the cold was doing a reasonable job to begin with. In fact, the body was not used to its full capacity, reintegrating only a few thousand Taliban militants into Afghan society. Convincing an Islamist insurgency to lay down its arms is tough work.

The loss of Rabbani will certainly not make the council’s work any easier. Afghanistan’s Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek minorities (Rabbani was a Tajik leader) will think twice before accepting a Pashtun into their homes. Tajiks, who were already skeptical of sharing power with the Taliban, will look at reconciliation with an even greater amount of disdain. It is not unreasonable to predict that Tajik communities may target high value Pashtun figures in reprisal although that prediction assumes that cross ethnic clashes will continue throughout the rest of this year.

Put simply, expect the insurgents to keep relying on assassination techniques in their repertoire. With the killing of Karzai’s powerful half brother Ahmed Wali and now former president Rabbani, assassination appears to be working for them. Peace will have to wait another day.

Sadly, after thirty straight years of war in various forms, this is something that most Afghans have come to expect.