By Tim Lister and Jennifer Rizzo, CNN
The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani in Kabul – apparently by the very group he was trying to negotiate with – suggests a political solution in Afghanistan remains a distant prospect – and is another reminder of how fragile security is in the Afghan capital, according to analysts and diplomats.
Rabbani was also one of the most prominent Tajiks in Afghanistan, and his killing is likely to aggravate their fears of renewed ethnic conflict with the largely Pashtun Taliban.
It’s not clear whether the Taliban leadership sanctioned the assassination, but that was the immediate assumption of the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, who said it represented “the strategy of the Taliban to assassinate as many leaders as possible.”
Those words were echoed by Gen. John R. Allen, commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, who said that “regardless of what Taliban leadership outside the country say, they do not want peace, but rather war.”
Long an enemy of the Taliban, Rabbani was a controversial choice when appointed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai as chairman of the High Peace Council a year ago. A former president of Afghanistan himself, he was forced to flee Kabul when the Taliban took over in 1996, but continued to lead resistance to the regime from his stronghold in Faisabad in northern Afghanistan.
“Politics in Afghanistan tend to be ethnic based,” says Paraag Shukla, an expert on Afghan governance at the Institute for the Study of War. “Rabbani has been a leading figure in the Tajik minority. He was a surprising choice when he was chosen to be a head of this peace council because the Taliban has opposed him in the past because they are Pashtun.”
Even Rabbani himself had expressed distrust of Karzai’s peace overtures to the Taliban. He was quoted in a U.S. diplomatic cable in 2008 as saying many “non-Pashtuns suspect Karzai is pursuing a strategy that sets Pashtuns against the country’s other ethnicities.” He also acknowledged that he had tried to persuade Karzai not to run for re-election.
But Bruce Riedel, Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., says Karzai appointed Rabbani because he had weight and experience and could reassure minorities.
“He was the type of figure if a real negotiation process moved forward, people would say we trust Rabbani – and I think that is why Karzai chose him.”
Even so, it appears Rabbani’s role in the peace process was not very popular in Islamabad. Last month, in an interview with CNN affiliate GEO News, he chided Pakistan for not investing more in the Afghan peace process.
"We feel in Afghanistan that Pakistan still supports the Taliban and several Taliban leaders are living in Pakistan, and Pakistan can encourage them to come to the negotiating table," Rabbani said. “Allowing the Afghan opposition to live in the country is against the spirit of bilateral friendship,” he said.
Rabbani also made it clear he was intent on attracting moderate Taliban to the peace process. "Some others oppose, and can harm, the peace process," he said. That echoes what he told the U.S. ambassador in Kabul at the end of 2008, according to a diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks, when he urged the incoming Obama administration to “require those seeking to reconcile to break off relations with al Qaeda and Pakistan-based sources of support."
Little surprise then that at least among Taliban hardliners he remained the enemy rather than the peacemaker.
How any peace process will be affected by his death is as yet unclear.
“It’s a very serious setback for anyone that was hoping for a peace process," says Riedel of Brookings. "There has always been a huge debate about whether the Taliban was interested in reconciliation, I think we got the answer [today].”
Riedel says the Peace Council had trouble finding anyone to negotiate with. “It has been trying to see if it can find a Taliban that wants to talk to it and there’s been a lot of talks about talks but there hasn’t been much real practical negotiations. We have now seen that there are very powerful forces that don’t want that reconciliation process to go forward.”
Shukla agrees. The High Council “hadn’t really made significant process in the past year. It was a move seen as partly symbolic,” he says. “But it was important in that the government needed an official council that was representative of different minority groups and could be a unified message to insurgents from the government.”
Those minorities are already nervous about being marginalized. “Putting a respected and experienced political figure who was a minority into that position was in part to assuage the fears of a lot of minorities,” Shukla says. Now that figure is gone.
“It will be very hard to find a figure of comparable character that reassures Tajiks and Uzbeks that reconciliation is not a sell-out of their interests,” says Riedel.