- By Anand GopalAnand Gopal is a freelance reporter based in Afghanistan. His dispatches are available at anandgopal.com.
Because of a suicide attacker with a bomb in his turban, Afghanistan’s dim prospects for peace just got dimmer. The assassination of strongman and key historical and present Afghan political figure Burhanuddin Rabbani, head of the commission meant to negotiate with the Taliban, the High Peace Council (HPC), signals the massive challenges ahead in efforts to end the war.
For many in the Afghan government, Rabbani’s appointment to head the HPC was seen as a way to involve the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, and in particular, Rabbani’s Jamiat-e-Islami party, in the peace process. Jamiat, which has long been hostile to the Taliban, is an important force in northern Afghanistan, particularly among ethnic Tajiks. But many in the Taliban and in Pakistan met the appointment with derision. As the country’s president in the mid-nineties, Rabbani presided over a brutal civil war that killed thousands and helped spawn the rise of the Taliban movement. In the late 90s, Jamiat was one of the Taliban’s main foes in the latter’s drive to conquer the north. Pakistan, meanwhile, has always viewed the India- and Iran-friendly Rabbani with hostility.
Rabbani, who likely saw the peace process as a way to re-inject himself into the national political scene, initially took to his duties with alacrity. But it was unclear whether he was pursuing a sort of managed surrender (reintegration) or genuine negotiations. In any event, the lack of progress, hostility from the Taliban side and a spate of assassinations appeared to have turned him against a peace deal. He recently told the Afghan newspaper Hasht-e-Sob that the Taliban are a "catastrophe-creating movement" bent on the destruction of the country. "The Taliban’s acts have defamed religious scholars and this movement calling itself Taliban creates disaster," he said. "They recruit soldiers among the youth and claim that they are from madrassas."
In a stark message on the anniversary of the death of Afghan national hero and slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, he declared that:
The people are justifying the war they have waged and say that they are fighting the war because of the presence of the foreigners. This is not the case actually. This war was going on prior to the presence of the foreigners here and will continue after the foreigners go from here.
The remarks echo a deep resistance to a peace deal from erstwhile Northern Alliance elements, ranging from former National Directorate of Security (NDS) chief Amrullah Saleh to the powerful governor of Balkh province, Ustad Atta, who denounced efforts at negotiations on Afghan television yesterday.
From the Taliban and Pakistani side, Rabbani and other Northern Alliance figures appear to be seen as impediments to a deal. "These people don’t represent Afghanistan," a Taliban official in Quetta told me earlier this summer. "We can’t ever have peace with them around." In fact, the spate of assassinations in northern Afghanistan in recent months-Kunduz governor Muhammad Omar, Kunduz Police Chief Abdul Rahman Sayedkheli, head of police for Northern Afghanistan Daoud Daoud, and others-could be seen as the steady elimination of elements standing in the way of a deal favorable to the Taliban.
But it could all backfire. Remaining Northern Alliance figures will likely close ranks and conclude that any sort of rapprochement with the Taliban is impossible. Some, like strongman Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, have reportedly looked to cultivate ties with India as a counterweight to what they see as an assassination drive spurred by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Ex-Alliance commanders, aided by U.S. programs to create local militias, will likely accelerate their drive to rearm, possibly setting the stage for a future civil war.
For now, the immense divides that plague Afghanistan will be on full display. Among some communities, Rabbani will be hailed as a hero, a wizened Islamic scholar and hero of the war against the Russians. In others, he will be remembered for scores of human rights abuses and widespread devastation during the last civil war. Either way, a peace deal in Afghanistan remains as unlikely as ever.
Anand Gopal is an independent journalist covering Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the author of the New America Foundation paper "The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Kandahar."Follow him on twitter @anand_gopal_