The bomb in a turban that killed Afghanistan's former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, also killed America's plan to make a deal with the Taliban as a way to get out of a war that is going nowhere.
The New Yorker
20 September 2011
Former Afghan President Rabbani (assassinated) with President Karzai (soon to be assassinated?)
You can imagine the fear that must be spreading through the ranks of the leaders of Afghanistan’s American-backed government. On Tuesday, a Taliban assassin, with a bomb tucked into his turban, killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, the country’s former President, inside of his own home, in one of the safest neighborhoods in Kabul, a few blocks from the American Embassy.
Word of the assassination prompted President Hamid Karzai, who was in New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, to cancel his speech there and head back to Kabul.
The bomber had posed as a Taliban commander who wanted to talk peace, and he was invited into Rabbani’s home.
Rabbani’s death is a blow to the very idea that reconciliation with the Taliban is possible—or even desirable. Even more troubling, it may turn out to be an opening shot in the civil war that more and more Afghans believe could follow on the heels of an American and NATO withdrawal.
Rabbani, a wizened, white-bearded, domineering figure, was the head of the Afghan High Peace Council, whose mission was to try to make peace with the Taliban. After ten years of war, “reconciliation”—that is, a peace deal with the Taliban movement or large chunks of it—has become an increasingly attractive idea to Afghans and Americans tired of fighting. Preliminary talks with some high-level Taliban figures have been unfolding over the past several months, and, closer to the ground, several hundred low-level fighters have agreed to give up fighting. NATO commanders and Afghan leaders have expressed confidence that this process, coupled with stepped-up military pressure, could persuade the Taliban leadership to make a deal.
Rabbani’s assassination appears to derail, if not destroy, those hopes, at least for now. Over the past few months, the Taliban have embarked on an extraordinary campaign of assassination, with the apparent aim of wiping out the upper tier of the Afghan government.
Taliban assassins have killed Syed Khili, the chief of police of Kunduz Province; Daoud Daoud, the chief of police for northern Afghanistan; Khan Mohammed Mujahid, the chief of police of Kandahar Province; Jan Mohammad Khan, a close friend and adviser to President Hamid Karzai; and, most spectacularly, the President’s half-brother and political chieftain, Ahmed Wali Karzai.
American commanders predicted last year that the Taliban would embark on an assassination campaign as they were forced to cede territory across southern Afghanistan in the wake of an American offensive. 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.
The upshot of Rabbani’s death could even be something worse. Rabbani was an ethnic Tajik, a minority whose leaders have been the closest allies of the Americans and NATO. The Taliban are comprised almost entirely ethnic Pashtuns, the country’s largest group. In the nineteen-nineties, following the pull-out of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan descended into a horrific civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and largely pitted the Pashtuns against the Tajiks and Afghanistan’s other minorities like the Uzbeks and Hazaras. Forces under Rabbani’s ostensible control carried out large-scale killings of civilians.
It ended only with the American invasion in 2001. Over the past couple of years, as the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated, more and more Afghans have been predicting a reprise of the civil war. The leaders of the non-Pashtun minorities have been quietly discussing forming local militias to get ready for that day.
A majority of Americans now appear to support a prompt withdrawal from Afghanistan. With a bad economy and ten years of mismanaged military policy, it’s not difficult to understand why. Most of the men and women running for president appear ready to oblige. But, as the killing of Rabbani shows, the groundwork for a stable Afghanistan has not been laid. Withdraw we may, but it will not be without consequences. Is any Afghan leader safe? It doesn’t seem so.
We will be there.
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