KABUL, Afghanistan – The assassination of the Afghan government’s point man on negotiations with the Taliban throws that fragile effort into disarray and complicates U.S. hopes of finding a way out of the long conflict in Afghanistan.
A suicide bomber with explosives concealed in his turban killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former Afghan president and onetime warlord, at his home in Kabul’s diplomatic district Tuesday. Police said the bomber claimed to be bringing a message from the Taliban, and the attack bore the hallmarks of assassinations carried out by the movement.
Rabbani, who was in his 70s, was the head of a government panel known as the High Peace Council, which was set up last year to try to begin talks with the Taliban. Although they have different approaches, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and U.S. officials both regard negotiations as key to ending the conflict and the large American military presence.
Karzai has declared the unwieldy 68-member body an essential clearinghouse for peace overtures, but it has had little to show for its efforts to date.
If the Taliban proves responsible for the killing, it would be another demonstration of insurgents’ ability to penetrate even the most closely guarded centers of power, and to carry out audacious strikes aimed at undermining the authority of the Afghan state.
The killing also roils sensitive ethnic politics, which will weigh heavily in any negotiated end to the war.
Rabbani was a Tajik; Karzai and most of the Taliban are Pashtun. Karzai had leaned heavily on Rabbani to give the peace process credibility outside of the president’s Pashtun power base.
But Rabbani’s stewardship of the peace council made him some bitter enemies among Tajiks, and he failed to win over some prominent figures associated with the Northern Alliance, the onetime militia that helped drive the Taliban from power.
Karzai’s office said the Afghan leader would cut short a visit to the U.N. General Assembly in New York, where he met with President Barack Obama on Tuesday.
In his public statements over the last two years, Karzai has been considerably more optimistic than his Western patrons about prospects of bringing the insurgents to the bargaining table, even though negotiations are a linchpin of the Western exit strategy.
That schism has been particularly evident of late, as the new American envoy to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, has said he does not believe that serious talks with the Taliban will occur any time soon. Crocker’s stance appears to reflect a view among some in the Obama administration that only sustained and punishing military blows against the insurgents will induce them to talk peace.
With a drawdown of American forces under way, U.S. strategy has shifted toward pinpointed raids by special operations forces – sometimes dozens of strikes in one night – aimed at devastating the insurgents’ command structure.