Delivering a heavy blow to a vision of peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan, a Taliban suicide bomber has killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the High Peace Council (HPC) and a former Afghan president.
The council was set up in October 2010 with a view to engaging the Taliban leadership in peace talks. The BBC reported that Rabbani was killed in his home by a suicide attacker whom officials suspect had concealed a bomb in his turban. Rabbani was meeting members of the Taliban at the time.
The former President had a colourful past, which included taking on the Taliban as the leader of the Northern Alliance, one of the main anti-Taliban groups, whose former head was the Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. Massoud met a similar fate as Rabbani, when two suicide bombers posing as journalists assassinated him as they set up for an ‘interview.’
Rabbani was a highly divisive figure who had many enemies, including the Taliban, and so many observers were surprised when he was put in charge of the peace talks. The BBC’s Afghan correspondent David Loyn describes him as the founding father of the Afghan mujahedeen, the Islamic warriors who defeated Russian forces in the 1980s. ‘Rabbani led one of the key mujahedeen groups,’ Loyn reports, ‘and emerged briefly as president of Afghanistan in 1992 in the darkest days of the civil war between the mujahedeen, who fought among themselves after the Russians were defeated.’
The big question now is whether his killing will have an impact on the reconciliation process.
Guardian security analyst Julian Borger says that the killing was a blow to the peace process, not because of what Rabbani did, but because of what he stood for. Quoting Michael Semple, a former EU envoy to Afghanistan who is still in close contact with the Taliban, Borger says that the assassination was ‘directly contrary’ to the moderate tone recently adopted by Mullah Omar, the mainstream Taliban leader who issued a strikingly conciliatory Eid message in August, and by Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of an allied faction based in Pakistan’s North Waziristan territory, who followed his lead.
Borger writes that the HPC always seemed an unlikely vehicle for pursuing peace, not least in the choice of its chairman, and points out that the HPC hadn’t played a role in the most important breakthrough so far, namely the direct contacts between American negotiators and a Mullah Omar confidante, Tayyab Agha. ‘The old Northern Alliance will now have to be brought back on board, and everyone else involved in the peace process in the run up to the Afghan conference in Bonn in December will have to work out a strategy for dealing with the many more spoiler attacks that are sure to follow.’
Whatever analysts say, one thing is clear: With each terrorist attack in Afghanistan, trust in the government is eroding, and people seem to be resigned to their fate once the NATO troops withdraw from the Hindu Kush by 2014.
It’s not a bright future, but a bleak past that is staring at the Afghans. The country reminds me of the old man in T. S. Eliot’s poem Gerontion who lives ‘in a draughty house, under a windy knob,’ waiting for a ‘sign’—a sign that they will be able to hope for rejuvenation and peace.