Details about the assassination of Burhannudin Rabbani are trickling in, raising many questions. It is still unclear whether this was a Taleban authorised hit, a Taleban ‘rogue operation’ or the work of another group. At the funeral, President Karzai said ‘the blood of the martyr and other martyrs of freedom requires us to continue our efforts until we reach peace and stability,’ but added they must fight the ‘enemies of peace’ with determination. Yet it is clear there cannot simply be a return to business as normal. Rabbani’s killing should be a wake-up call to all sides to start getting serious about peace, says AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark. In particular, the Taleban must now make its intentions clear.
A narrative of how Rabbani’s killer gained access to the head of the High Peace Council (HPC) is beginning to take shape, with President Karzai and a key member of the HPC, the reconciled Taleb Rahmatullah Wahidyar, who was himself wounded in the attack, both speaking at press conferences on 22 September.
Wahidyar said that, about four months ago, a former Taliban official named Abdul Satar, ‘a trusted man among Taleban’ was invited by the HPC (unspecified by whom) to Kabul. He visited Wahidyar, Rabbani and Massum Stanekzai (head of the HPC secretariat) and was tasked with returning to Quetta and Chaman to contact Taliban leaders and invite them to join the peace process, in the hope of enabling the HPC to start direct negotiations with the Taleban in Quetta. A week or so later, Satar returned to Kabul, reportedly having visited many Taleban leaders. He brought another man called Hamidullah Akhundzada, who was a resident of Kandahar and, so it was said, trusted by the Taleban.
Hamidullah stayed in Kabul at the HPC guesthouse for four days and met Rabbani and Stanekzai, asking permission to record the meetings and take the tapes to the Quetta Shura as proof of his meetings. For the next four months, he regularly submitted reports detailing his activities.
In early September, Wahidyar said Hamidullah called him and said the Quetta Shura was ready to officially start peace talks with the Afghan government. He said he might not be the person returning to Kabul, but there could be another (whose name he did not know). Both Wahidyar and Stankzai were excited about a possible imminent breakthrough.
Two days later, a person named Mullah Esmatullah called Wahidyar from Quetta and said he had a message to deliver and would get in touch when he got to Afghanistan. He called again from Kandahar, came to Kabul and was taken by Wahidyar to the HPC guesthouse. There they met Stanekzai and listened to an audio message stored on a ‘memory chip’ (presumably a memory stick). Esmatullah said he had another message for Rabbani’s ears only.
Karzai said Stanekzai played him an ‘audio message from a representative of the Taleban movement called Mawlawi Enayatollah Makhdum and it was ‘amazing’. The president telephoned Rabbani who was then in Iran and asked him to cut short his travels and come back to Kabul as soon as possible. Esmatullah turned out to be a killer. (For media reports of the press conferences, see here and also here).
NDS, in its news conference pointed the finger firmly at the Taleban leadership. ‘Our investigation is continuing, but we know that someone named Mullah Hamidullah from the Quetta Shura was involved,’ said spokesman Shafiqullah Taheri. ‘This means that the Quetta Shura was also involved.’ (for AFP reporting see here). This seems highly premature. The current account of the trickery just raises too many questions, particularly as to the provenance of the various contacts – how they were made, what was the background of the men involved and how this was verified and by whom. One would want to know their fathers’ names, qawms, places of birth, jihadi backgrounds, networks and so on – the normal sort of questions asked in Afghanistan to work out who someone ‘is’.
There is also the question as to whether there was an intricate plot from the start to target Rabbani or whether Esmatullah was inserted into what may have been a genuine or otherwise dead-end channel – and by whom. These questions should be investigated not just by the Afghan government, but also, if this was not authorised by them, the Taleban.
The Taleban’s continuing silence indicates various scenarios. The assassination may have been ordered after which the leadership got cold feet over claiming it, because of the unexpected furore over Rabbani’s death. It could have been ordered by someone senior, but not cleared by the leadership as a whole, as such a high profile killing normally should be. The other possibility is that a Pakistan-related group carried out the killing and the Taleban is coming under pressure to say nothing to shield Islamabad or its proxies. (It was noticeable in this regard that a claim of responsibility made to Reuters was made in Pakistan. See here for details.)
If this was a Taleban authorised hit, then a grand peace deal is off the table. The best that could, in that case, be hoped for is that those within the Taleban who talk (in private) about how they want an end to the bloodshed start working harder from within to change the movement or get out of it as it is currently led.
But even if this was the work of another group or a rogue operation, it is still incumbent on the leadership to come clean about its intentions. The Taleban has to decide if it really wants talks. The strategy of both the Taleban and the US to ‘kill and talk’, i.e. engage in talks in a half-hearted manner, while ruthlessly assassinating their opponents, has undermined the very currency of peace. For ISAF, talking to Taleban has largely meant reintegration, i.e. trying to get commanders and men to change sides and surrender. This is part of a military strategy (although not a very successful one), the other side of the Kill/Capture campaign, with both aimed at weakening the Taleban. It is incompatible with talks which, in good faith, are aimed at reaching a peace settlement.
If both the Taleban and the US and its allies are serious about peace, one would want to see a mutual end to all the targeted killings and some sort of ceasefire as a basis for talks. But it is also necessary that the current messy skulduggery of a peace process should come out of the shadows.
As to the uselessness of the current peace process, the former UN and EU envoy, Francesc Vendrell (in an interview on the morning after the assassination to be found for a week here) has made valid points. ‘President Karzai,’ he said, ‘has established no proper channel to talk to the Taleban. There are multiple channels. And it has not been done in a very professional way. I think Professor Rabbani and anyone talking to the Taleban were taking enormous risks… just as vice versa, the Taleban brought in were also taking enormous risks. And in a properly conducted negotiation, these would have happened in a third country. And the President would have appointed a particular person who would have some credibility and some support in Afghan society to conduct these talks and preferably that would have been an intermediary.’*
Dr Abdullah, speaking at a press conference on 22 September, was also scathing about the peace process, saying that, although every Afghan wanted peace and it was every Muslim’s religious duty to seek it, the current set up had to be ‘completely re-visited’. The anger of Rabbani’s comrades about talking to the Taleban was clear at the end of his funeral on Friday, although Afghan networks swiftly cut the pictures at this point in proceedings. Coverage briefly continued on one network and Rabbani’s supporters could be heard chanting death to Karzai, the Americans, the ISI and Wahidyar. Dr Abdullah told the crowd, ‘Be awake and know your enemy,’ and Amrullah Saleh said, ‘This government is not taking responsibility for the shedding of our peoples’ blood. The government doesn’t have the right to talk with enemies anymore. Nothing will come of so much talking. Just wait for a call. Very soon we will come to the streets.’
Critics of Abdullah accuse him of exploiting the death of Rabbani to reinforce his opposition to talks and using emotion to bolster his personal position. Nevertheless, he is not alone in having been dubious about talking to the Taleban from the start. This killing justifies his and others’ fears, as Abdullah eloquently explained. Why, Abdullah asked, do Taleban representatives not just come to Kabul in the way Hezb-Islami delegations come? Why can’t the peace talks be held openly? And why has the government gone ahead with talks when the Taleban have not demonstrated ‘even one sign of interest’ that they seriously want to come to the table to discuss a political settlement? (For media report of the press conference, see here).
In the last year, multiple, secretive channels have been opened up to the Taleban, with the world and his brother wanting a piece of the peace action. (See here for an earlier account of some of these channels). This is confusing and unhelpful. The one certain envoy from Mullah Omar, his secretary Tayeb Agha, who met American negotiators in Germany in July was outed to the press and has reportedly gone into hiding. Agha was potentially a useful channel precisely because he is a known person – we know his provenance and many of us working in Afghanistan during the Emirate met him or knew him personally). These seem to have been the talks referred to in Mullah Omar’s relatively conciliatory Eid message when he said Taleban had held talks with the Americans and discussed prisoner exchanges.
Sources close to the talks have said the Americans had appeared fixated on their missing soldier, Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taleban in June 2009 (for details about the case see here), in the belief that, if Agha could deliver on this, he would prove his capabilities to act on more substantive issues. Agha was reportedly bemused by this stress on what seemed an extremely minor issue. If this account is correct, the US approach was a patently inadequate response to what must have been a difficult visit – from the Taleban side – to arrange.
President Karzai and his spokesmen appear to be trying to return to business as normal. Foreign ministry spokesman, Jenan Musazoi, speaking on the morning after the killing (the interview can be heard on the same BBC website as Vendrell’s), said bravery was still needed to continue the peace process, along with, ‘commitment, patience, hard work and, yes, the sense that you might have to sacrifice even your life in the cause of peace and stability in Afghanistan.’
Yet, it must be obvious to all sides that the peace process so far has been half-hearted to say the least – both dangerous and unhelpful. Until it is clear who killed Rabbani, and unless the Taleban fully comes onside and both they and the Americans decide that they are serious about peace, unless a clearer mechanism for talking to the Taleban is set up and the depth of the unhappiness of northern leaders and others is recognised – and they need to stick to legitimate concerns and not use this issue to inflame emotions, it is difficult at the moment to see the point of talking. At the same time, if talks are not to be on the table, then the alternative also needs to be recognised, the high probability of a return to civil war.
* Vendrell went on, ‘President Karzai needs to set up a very tight team, close to him, dependent on him in a way, but also with the support of a lot of other political forces in Afghanistan and then start a process that probably has to take place, not in people’s homes, but… in a third country.’
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020