The killing of Burhannudin Rabbani was a treacherous act. Pretending to be a peace emissary, his assassin gained entry to his home and killed him while the two men were greeting each other, presumably while saying salaam alekum. It is not yet clear if this was the work of the Taleban. They have yet to confirm or deny responsibility, to praise or condemn the attack. Given what this assassination would mean for peace talks if the Taleban were responsible, this is important – as AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark reports.
Whether the assassination of Rabbani was authorised by the Taleban leadership, or was an operation by rogue Taleban or indeed, whether it was conducted by non-Taleban, one would expect an authorised Taleban response – whether it is confirmation or denial or condemnation. Instead, there has been confusion and silence.
On its website the Taleban spokesmen, Zabihullah Mujahed, has said their information on the operation was ‘not yet complete’ and ‘as regards our position, we cannot say anything yet.’ He also denied he had, on Tuesday night, claimed responsibility for the killing during a telephone interview with Reuters. (For Zabihullah’s statement in Pashto see here. An AAN translation is footnoted.* For Reuters’ piece, see here).
Reuters has repeated the claim, saying Mujahed confirmed it in further interviews on Wednesday morning. There have also been a few reports of possible Taleban denials (see among others here and here, although a closer reading suggests that they were denying only that they had claimed the attack). However, the main response from the Taleban today has been silence. The usual emails sent to the media by the spokesmen’s office have not mentioned the assassination and the phones of both Taleban spokesmen appear to have been switched off.
It is all very strange. It may be that a mistaken admission was made to Reuters (spokesmen’s identities do change) or the spokesman was misunderstood** or Zabihullah got new instructions and was subsequently told to clam up. Taleban media operations are normally very coherent. Sometimes, they do wait to make comments when a situation is tricky – for example, after a British soldier was kidnapped in Helmand in July 2011, they only made comments after he was killed. Occasionally, spokesmen claim responsibility for operations carried out by non-Taleban (for example the highly dubious claim to have killed the ten IAM medical workers in Badakhshan in August 2010, see here). They also sometimes deny their own operations when the political fallout is damaging (for example, alleging that 27 Laghmani labourers on their way to Iran who were hauled off a bus and shot in 2008 were really ANA soldiers travelling in plain clothes; the commander who ordered these killings was subsequently recalled to Quetta and stripped of his command – see page 19 and 20 of AAN’s report on the Layha).
The Taleban’s silence, with that one (contested) claim of responsibility, may indicate division in the senior ranks about this assassination and what they want to say about it. Killing Rabbani would fit in with the Taleban’s strategy this year of targeting senior leaders, including Generals Sayedkheili and Daud, Ahmad Wali Karzai and Jan Muhammad. There was no love lost between the Taleban and the former head of the Northern Alliance and his would be a highly desirable scalp in normal circumstances.
However, Rabbani was also head of the High Peace Council. Regardless of how one views Rabbani, the man or the work of the High Peace Council, if the Taleban have chosen to kill the government’s senior official negotiator, this would be symbolically highly destructive, suggesting that they want nothing to do with talks. It would be a low, perfidious act to kill the official Afghan government’s peace negotiator in his own home by pretending to be on a peace mission from the Taleban leadership. This conclusion was speedily reached by Rabbani’s northern allies, Dr Abdullah and Nur Atta Muhammad, who made strong statements deriding the very idea of talks with ‘these wild beasts’ (Atta) and ‘people who don’t believe in any humanity’ (Dr Abdullah).*** The strength of the reactions are understandable, given that Rabbani was an old comrade, but also political – as the assassination, if it was carried out by Taleban, would fully justify their hostility to talks.
If the Taleban have not killed Rabbani, a denial would be useful. A condemnation would be even more welcome.
* Translation of the Taleban statement:
Statement of the spokesman of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan about the murder of Rabbani. Posted 11.31 21 September 2011
Yesterday in the late afternoon, the leader of what the Kabul administration calls the High Peace Commission, Burhannudin Rabbani, had been killed. As our information is not yet complete about the incident, so, as regards our position, we cannot say anything yet. Whatever media sources have quoted us as saying is baseless. Once again, we stress that we don’t want to say anything at this stage. We ask Reuters to investigate the wrong quotation about us claiming responsibility and clarify the matter and avoid publishing such baseless news in the future. It’s worth mentioning that there have been a couple of similar reports from this agency in the past, which were mistaken reports which were published. These wrong reports force us to say to the international community that this agency is publishing reports according to themselves [ie not from original sources].
** There was the strange detail in the first Reuters piece of the Taleban fighters being called Massum and Yar, ie the same names as Massum Stanekzai and Wahidyar, both present and from the High Peace Council. This was ‘corrected’ by Mujahed in subsequent interviews, reported Reuters.
*** ‘Dr Abdullah,’ reported the New York Times, ‘summed up the sentiments heard from many Northern Alliance figures in the wake of the assassination: ‘This is a lesson for all of us that we shouldn’t fool ourselves that this group, who has carried out so many crimes against the people of Afghanistan, are willing to make peace.’
‘Dr Abdullah added: ‘We have to be realistic about what we are up against. We are up against people who don’t believe in any humanity. They assassinate people on the streets of Kabul, they assassinate those trying to achieve peace.’ Last spring the Taliban had proclaimed that they would kill members of the High Peace Council.
‘‘No one took it seriously and they should have and it is also time for President Karzai to wake up,’ he said. ‘These are the people who he calls his ‘dear brothers,’ they are behind what happened.’ He referred to President Hamed Karzai’s predilection for calling the insurgents ‘dear brothers’ or ‘upset brothers.’
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020