Peace efforts in Afghanistan suffered another setback Sunday when Mullah Arsala Rahmani, a former deputy minister of education under the Taliban government and an important mediator in the ongoing peace talks, was assassinated.
News reports said Rahmani was killed by a gunman while sitting at a traffic light just outside his house in western Kabul. Rahmani had been driving to a meeting of the High Peace Council, the Afghan body tasked with spearheading negotiations with the Taliban.
This is the second major casualty the High Peace Council has suffered, following the assassination of the council’s former head, Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed last year. Rabbani was killed by a suicide bomber who posed as a peace negotiator to get close to his target.
The Guardian reported that Rahmani was “one of several former members of the Taliban who were removed from a U.N. blacklist in July 2011, eliminating a travel ban and an assets freeze in a move seen as key to promoting the peace effort.”
The Taliban for its part denied it was behind the killing. The New York Times quoted a Taliban spokesperson as saying, “it is true that at the beginning of our spring operation we announced that among many other entities and individuals we will target members of the so-called High Peace Council and we are still committed to our campaign against the so-called members of the so-called High Peace Council, but again I insist that the Taliban were not behind today’s assassination.”
The incident occurred on the same day that Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced the third phase of the security handover of the country to the Afghan national police and army. The security handover is part of the broader foreign troop withdrawal from the country that’s scheduled to be completed by the end of 2014. But many continue to doubt whether local forces are capable of bringing peace to the war torn country.
In addition, many Afghani analysts deride the peace talks with the Taliban, arguing the negotiations are futile because the Taliban leadership isn’t in a position to deliver peace.
“Recent events and the assassination of Professor Rabbani and the target[ed] assassination in greater Kandahar area send a lot of questions to Afghanistan and international allies: is it even meaningful to think that we can make peace with the Taliban leadership? Do they [Taliban leaders] have the authority to make peace? It’s a waste of time and resources to talk to the Taliban leadership which cannot talk peace without Pakistan’s consent,” says Omar Sharifi, director of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies.
Sharifi characterizes the recent killing as a “serious blow” to the peace process, but also points to the divisions among Taliban leaders regarding Rahmani’s leadership in the negotiations.
“We have to see all these things in sequence. We see there is some sort of rift emerging within Taliban leadership, we have a group who wants to talk and who does not. This infighting reminds me of the late 1980s after the Soviet withdrawal when the infighting emerged among the Mujahidin” Sharifi says.
Indeed, Agha Jan Motasim, a moderate member of the Taliban’s leadership council, the Quetta Shura, echoed these sentiments in an interview with AP on Sunday. “There are two kinds of Taliban. The one type of Taliban who believes that the foreigners want to solve the problem but there is another group and they don't believe, and they are thinking that the foreigners only want to fight," Motasim said by telephone. He went on to say that the majority of Taliban members favor peace.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, who was the Taliban government’s ambassador to United Nations and is now actively involved in the High Peace Council, is unconcerned about the divisions among Taliban leaders and feels that despite the “great loss” of Mullah Arsala Rahmani, the peace process will continue. “Peace is the hope of the people of Afghanistan. This is the hope of the government of Afghanistan and the hope of the regional countries. Rahmani has sacrificed his life for peace,” Mujahid says.
The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which is the multinational command of foreign troops in Afghanistan, said in a press statement, “this attack is clear evidence that those who oppose the legitimate government of Afghanistan have absolutely no interest in supporting the peace process on any level but through murder, thuggery, and intimidation.”
Nonetheless, Rahmani’s killing reinforces the feeling of hopelessness among Afghan citizens, and undermines their confidence in the future of the country.