The Taliban struck again on 20 September in Kabul, killing former President Burhanuddin Rabbani. A ‘messenger of peace’ reportedly waited for days in Kabul seeking a direct meeting with Rabbani promising that he has good news of reconciliation to deliver from the insurgents. As he was finally granted audience by the man who headed the High Peace Council (HPC), largely hailed as an Afghan led process to provide an official address for reconciliation with the Taliban, he detonated the explosives hidden in his turban.
The killing comes few days after the Haqqani network, a constituent of the Taliban-led insurgency, has been implicated of involvement in an audacious attack on the US embassy in Kabul that went on for over 20 hours last week. Not only have the insurgents been able to carry out attacks on targets of their choosing, such attacks have an element of ascending audacity about them. Beginning with a series of spectacular attacks in Kabul this year- the Intercontinental Hotel in June, British Cultural centre in August, the United States (US) embassy attack in September, the Taliban’s choice of symbolic and high profile targets sends out a clear message at a time when the US and its allies have commenced the process of drawdown and are in a hurry to bring an end to the ‘long war’, for which reconciliation with the insurgents is seen to be crucial.
Of all the high profile killings Taliban has orchestrated and of all the daredevil attacks they have carried out in recent times, either directly or through their proxies, the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani can be considered to be the most direct affront by the insurgents on Afghanistan’s quest for peace, through a process of reconciliation. The killing appears to be a categorical rejection of the claims made by the US as well as the Afghan government regarding the progress in peace talks with the insurgents.
In simple terms, the insurgents have delivered a message at Kabul’s door steps that they are not amenable to peace talks. The killing comes close on the heels of news that the US and its international allies have supported an Afghan plan to open a political office for the Taliban in the Gulf state of Qatar.
However, whether the death of Rabbani is indeed a setback to the peace process remains debatable. The HPC, with all the hype it created, has ended up as a talking shop of handpicked delegates. To most Afghans, HPC is a merely money-generating scheme and a continuation of the patronage system rather than a genuine process of reconciliation.
Rabbani’s death, however, is a definite loss for President Karzai. The cooption of Rabbani, a Tajik leader of the former Northern Alliance (NA) and the Jamiat-e-Islami party, in the HPC was intended to bridge the divide and win over non-Pashtuns opposed to any peace deal with the Taliban. While Rabbani’s efforts at peace had shown only limited promise, his backing of President Karzai had benefited the President, who was under constant pressure from former NA members not to sell out to the Taliban. As a result, most leaders from the former NA saw Rabbani as a sold out to Karzai.
The sense of immense loss was clear in President Karzai’s statement, “The mission that he had undertaken was vital for the Afghan people and for the security of our country and for peace in our country. I don’t think that we can fill his place easily.” The direction that the reconciliation move would now take is unclear. It is obvious, however, that each such successful attack is marked by Kabul’s diminishing bargaining power vis-a-vis the insurgents.
This brings us back to the most pressing question. Where is Afghanistan heading? If military defeat of the Taliban is declared ‘mission impossible’ and the insurgents out rightly reject the overtures of peace and reconciliation in all its forms, what are the prospects of stabilizing Afghanistan beyond 2014? President Barack Obama has vowed after Rabbani’s killing that the US will be undeterred in helping Afghans find freedom despite the assassination. How this goal would be achieved, amidst declining American presence in the country, remains a pertinent question. Following the attack on the embassy, the US ambassador to Kabul had suggested that the act is a demonstration of weakness by the insurgents that “they could only this much and not more.” Such bravado has few takers these days.
In the face of rising violence and instability, engaging the insurgents might provide a window of opportunity for building an inclusive political order. However, a weak Afghan state with inadequate capacity to ensure effective governance, political representation, economic opportunities and establishing rule of law will not stand a chance of subversion from within. The death of Rabbani is a time to ponder on the processes, structures and viability of such attempts at peace building. In addition to establishing official address, the process has to be unified, representative, transparent and inclusive.
This article appeared at SOUTH ASIAN SOUNDINGS, a weblog of the Institute of South Asian Studies.