The assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was in charge of the High Peace Council pursuing reconciliation talks with the Taliban, is a clarifying moment for Afghans who had hoped Rabbani’s efforts would bring peace to the war-ravaged country.
The assassination is a body blow to the political reconciliation process and will reinforce resistance among the country’s ethnic minority leaders to the very idea of seeking political accommodation with the Taliban.
Rabbani’s assassination on Tuesday is eerily similar to that of Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud 10 years ago in both how it was conducted and the impact it will have on political dynamics within Afghanistan. It is likely to strengthen ethnic divisions in the country and embolden hardline Taliban elements that are unwilling to compromise politically and retain close links to al-Qaeda.
And just as Massoud’s assassins had tricked him into thinking he was being interviewed by journalists, Rabbani’s killers had fooled him into thinking he was meeting with a Taliban intermediary interested in talking peace.
The killing of Rabbani follows a string of assassinations of key political figures, mainly in the southern province of Kandahar, where the Taliban made their debut in 1994. During the month of July, several important Afghan leaders lost their lives: Ahmad Wali Karzai, head of the Provincial Council of Kandahar Province; Mawlawi Hekmatullah Hekmat, head of the Religious Council of Kandahar; Jan Mohammed Khan, senior advisor to President Hamid Karzai; and Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar City.
This latest assassination demonstrates the stakes involved in stabilizing Afghanistan. The U.S. must be realistic about the threat that Taliban extremists and their al-Qaeda allies pose to U.S. interests in the region. Washington policymakers should not pin false hopes on a political reconciliation process merely to justify a troop withdrawal. They should also accept that withdrawing troops from the battlefield before Afghan security forces are able to hold their own against the insurgents and before a genuine reconciliation process is underway would automatically undermine Washington’s negotiating position.
Rabbani’s assassination also comes close on the heels of the September 13 insurgent attack on the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul. That attack has been linked to the Haqqani network, which is based in Pakistan’s tribal border areas. U.S. officials warned Pakistan that it must sever ties to the group and help eliminate its leadership or the U.S. would be compelled to take unspecified unilateral action against the organization.
Pakistan views Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, Sirajuddin, as important power brokers in the region who would help protect Pakistani interests in Afghanistan following any departure of U.S. and NATO forces. Pakistan has sought to push for the Haqqanis to play a role in the reconciliation process in Afghanistan, but the latest attack against the U.S. embassy has apparently solidified the U.S. government position against any such prospect.
Pakistan’s reluctance to play a helpful role in promoting Afghanistan reconciliation and its defiance of U.S. calls to break ties to groups attacking the U.S. in Afghanistan is pushing the region into deeper conflict and risking an implosion in U.S.–Pakistan relations.
An editorial in a prominent Pakistani daily today strongly criticized Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar for telling U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the Haqqani network also threatened Pakistani interests. The editorial, entitled “Out of Step with Reality,” actually shows that some Pakistanis are increasingly out of step with the realities of the modern, civilized world.