Good Reads: Why the assassination of former Afghan president Rabbani matters

The assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani scuppers any further chance of negotiation with the Taliban, which could mean a grinding war until the US withdrawal in 2014.

Kamran Jebreili/AP
An Afghan holds a photo of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani during a rally after he was killed yesterday in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Sept. 21.

It’s not that things were going all that well in Afghanistan to begin with, but the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani – an Islamic scholar who had served as the president of Afghanistan in the early 1990s – by a suicide bomber yesterday has persuaded some analysts and journalists that Afghanistan is destined for an all-out civil war.

Mr. Rabbani was a senior leader of the Northern Alliance, a collection of militant groups who fought against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, and then largely fought each other for control of the country when the Soviets left. In the past year, Rabbani was head of a peace council that aimed to persuade Taliban moderates to stop fighting and start talking about rebuilding Afghanistan. For this reason, people see his assassination as a statement by the Taliban that negotiation is not in the cards.

The mechanics of the suicide bombing seem pretty straightforward. A man posing as a Taliban member willing to negotiate walks into Rabbani’s house. Afghan security being what it is, the Taliban member gets a perfunctory pat-down, but no one checks his turban. The Taliban meets Rabbani, bows, and detonates the bomb.

Most of the press focuses on Rabbani’s importance to the peace process. In The New York Times, Alissa J. Rubin writes that Rabbani’s stature as a religious man and a freedom fighter will make him hard to replace as a negotiator.

Without the 71-year-old Mr. Rabbani, it will be exceedingly difficult to move the peace process forward. A complex figure, he was nonetheless one of the few with the stature to persuade the Taliban’s enemies, the former Northern Alliance, to embark on reconciliation discussions.

But in the Monitor, Tom A. Peter writes from Kabul that Rabbani, despite his credentials, was considered ineffective as a mediator.

A year after its formation, however, the group has produced few, if any, results. Since the council’s inception, a number of analysts and officials criticized it for lacking anyone with substantive ties to the Taliban and comprising many former Northern Alliance members, staunch enemies of the Taliban.

Afghan negotiations traditionally require an impartial third-party mediator, so many Afghans saw the inclusion of so many Taliban opponents as dooming the High Peace Council to failure from the start.

Rabbani himself remained a controversial selection as head of the peace council, as both a former Northern Alliance member and someone accused of numerous war crimes.

The US military, which still carries the greatest burden of maintaining security in Afghanistan 10 years after the war began, warned some months back that the Taliban would start a string of high-level assassinations as the militant group began to lose territory in a combined Afghan-US offensive beginning last year. By this logic, the Americans argue that Rabbani’s assassination – and the brazen daylight attack by Taliban militants against ISAF headquarters and the US Embassy last week – are signs of Taliban desperation.

This may be wishful thinking, writes Dexter Filkins (former New York Times correspondent in Afghanistan and Iraq) in a blog on the New Yorker’s website. If anything, Rabbani’s assassination shows that the Taliban may be ramping up for more war, not less.

American officers and diplomats said then – and say now – that the assassinations and suicide bombings are, in that sense, a measure of Taliban desperation. But it hardly looks that way today. What seems more likely is that the Taliban’s leaders, sensing that America’s will to remain in Afghanistan is diminishing, are more determined than ever. It’s a basic notion of warfare: you sue for peace when you have to – when it hurts too much to carry on. The Taliban appear to be experiencing no weakening of their resolve, no matter the military pressure.

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