The post-Rabbani Afghanistan

An informed source in Kabul revealed to me that an ominously fateful intelligence tip relayed to several top Afghan political figures last week by an official at the National Directorate of Security (NDS) pointed to a radical Taliban faction planning to target a high-ranking member of the former anti-Taliban coalition in the days to come. ...

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

An informed source in Kabul revealed to me that an ominously fateful intelligence tip relayed to several top Afghan political figures last week by an official at the National Directorate of Security (NDS) pointed to a radical Taliban faction planning to target a high-ranking member of the former anti-Taliban coalition in the days to come. Some took the warning seriously and ramped up close-protection measures. Others, like former President and head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council Berhanuddin Rabbani, who had rushed back from an overseas visit for the explicit purpose of meeting a supposed Quetta Shura Taliban emissary, either was not briefed on time, took the warning lightly or was been given strong assurances by facilitators that the emissary was the real deal.

On Tuesday, Ustad (professor) Rabbani, as he was called by most Afghans, paid for his trust, oversight, or overconfidence with his life, as the attacker (named in reports as Esmatullah, a supposed Quetta Shura messenger), detonated his booby-trapped turban when Rabbani greeted him inside his home in the heavily-guarded Wazir Akbar Khan district.

Obviously, the Afghan capital is rife with conspiracy theories. What is clear, however, is that this assassination, the latest in a series of high-profile attacks targeting senior government officials and former anti-Soviet mujahedeen leaders, has shaken Kabul's political scene to the core. The trust factor that is so desperately needed in any bid for peace has now been irreparably damaged.

An informed source in Kabul revealed to me that an ominously fateful intelligence tip relayed to several top Afghan political figures last week by an official at the National Directorate of Security (NDS) pointed to a radical Taliban faction planning to target a high-ranking member of the former anti-Taliban coalition in the days to come. Some took the warning seriously and ramped up close-protection measures. Others, like former President and head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council Berhanuddin Rabbani, who had rushed back from an overseas visit for the explicit purpose of meeting a supposed Quetta Shura Taliban emissary, either was not briefed on time, took the warning lightly or was been given strong assurances by facilitators that the emissary was the real deal.

On Tuesday, Ustad (professor) Rabbani, as he was called by most Afghans, paid for his trust, oversight, or overconfidence with his life, as the attacker (named in reports as Esmatullah, a supposed Quetta Shura messenger), detonated his booby-trapped turban when Rabbani greeted him inside his home in the heavily-guarded Wazir Akbar Khan district.

Obviously, the Afghan capital is rife with conspiracy theories. What is clear, however, is that this assassination, the latest in a series of high-profile attacks targeting senior government officials and former anti-Soviet mujahedeen leaders, has shaken Kabul’s political scene to the core. The trust factor that is so desperately needed in any bid for peace has now been irreparably damaged.

Farouq Wardak, the influential Minister of Education and active member of the HPC, admitted to Afghan media that the latest attack has "muddied the situation, and made it difficult to distinguish friend from enemy," an indication that even ardent supporters of the reconciliation process are having misgivings about its sustainability. However, from its inception, many Afghans have been torn about the viability of the HPC and how much it could accomplish when very little incentive exists for pursuing political talks. And the limited developments that have taken place since gave little indication that the talks have made much progress even before Rabbani’s murder.

Afghan pundits making the rounds of the country’s television talk shows have repeatedly accused the government of ineptitude and wishful thinking, adding that the reconciliation process is flawed and needs to be reviewed. In addition, public frustration and growing anger with Pakistan’s unwillingness to help crack down on militant safe-havens on its territory are clear impediments facing any peace initiative.

The ripple effects of these assassinations are also being felt across the country and beyond, at a time when there is a growing concern about NATO’s limited military ability to deal with the killings and its own casualties, the slower-than-expected rate of progress to build up an effective Afghan security apparatus, the Pakistani hedging-game that aims to force self-serving negotiating terms for reconciliation, and the Afghan government’s inability to make visible headway with political outreach to the Taliban and other disaffected groups.

Initial reactions by Afghan and Western leaders do not give any indication of an immediate strategic reassessment or tactical adjustment. On Tuesday, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, President Barack Obama assured the Afghan President, "this will not deter us from continuing on the path that we have, and we’ll definitely succeed."

Many in Afghanistan agree that almost a year since the launch of the HPC, there is a need for a serious review of the core political strategy that drives the peace effort, before the threats to social and political stability further erode confidence, and hamper the work that is required in the security and governance sectors.

The Taliban, or at least the powerful segments that consider the momentum to be in their favor, seek to derail the reconciliation process, while waging psychological war that aims to further weaken the negotiating position of the Kabul government, and to continue to dent Western public opinion perceptions.

Sandwiched between suspicious Afghan groups that balk at talks with the Taliban, and splinter groups within the Taliban conglomerate that want to sabotage dialogue by any means, the Karzai administration is left with two choices: 1) to continue along the fledgling path of a complex and incoherent reconciliation process that will increasingly require Pakistani assistance and Taliban accommodation, or 2) call for an intra-Afghan re-assessment of the strategy, but this time with the dual aim of bringing clarity to the strategy, and strengthening the Afghan government’s negotiating position if and when the two sides reach that stage to discuss contentious issues such as power-sharing, governance, and democratic and gender rights.

A coherent strategy will need simultaneous work on the following policy tracks:

1. To reassess the strategic objectives at home and with key international partners.

2. To build up Afghan domestic support and consensus through political consultation and dialogue with a broad spectrum of Afghan leaders and communities.

3. To revamp existing mechanisms for reintegration and reconciliation

4. To establish a real-time coordination and verification mechanism embedded within the reconciliation framework to prevent incidents such as imposters and suicide bombers from entering into the system.

5. To push for a range of diplomatic, intelligence and concrete efforts to bring more coherence and active cooperation among regional players, especially Pakistan, in the fight against militant hideouts, transit routes, recruiting, financing and training networks.

Such an initiative also offers an opportunity to end the current political stalemate that has crippled the operations of all three branches of government, and has soured relationships among political forces since the contentious presidential elections were held two years ago. This tension has been exacerbated further by last year’s controversial parliamentary election, and the series of controversial interferences by non-mandated governmental organisms in the electoral process, such as Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s special election tribunal, that followed.

Although no group has yet claimed responsibility for the latest brazen assassination, it comes on the heels of a series of blistering attacks since the beginning of the year, believed to be the work of the Haqqani group, a brutal ally of the Taliban based in Pakistani-administered North Waziristan.

The U.S. now says it is ready to take unilateral action against the Haqqanis unless Pakistan moves against them. Furthermore, on Tuesday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, accused the Pakistani military intelligence agency (ISI) of using the Haqqani group to wage a "proxy war" in Afghanistan.

With the U.S. showing signs of serious frustration with Pakistani denials and reluctance to take action against lethal groups using cross-border sanctuaries to attack Afghan and NATO troops, it will become increasingly more difficult to make headway with sporadic secret talks that have taken place between U.S. officials and Taliban emissaries.

The assassination of Professor Rabbani, whose controversial appointment as head of the HPC last year came as a surprise due to his past antagonism towards the Taliban, is not only a clear rejection by powerful elements of the peace process, but also an indication that Taliban hardliners may be winning a power struggle within their multi-layered organization.

Even though the so-called "moderate Taliban" now have a window of opportunity to break away before the process collapses altogether, that scenario is less likely to occur now as the pendulum swings in favor of the Taliban’s more extreme anti-peace factions. The controversial arrest of the Taliban’s number two, Mullah Ghani Baradar, by Pakistani authorities in February 2010, in Karachi, was a clear indication that Afghan elements who are seeking channels of dialogue are dependent on the host-country’s whims.

Understanding the uphill challenges that the HPC faced in recent months, Rabbani in recent speeches publicly voiced his displeasure with brutal Taliban tactics. At an Islamic scholars’ gathering in Tehran last week, he argued against brutality and the use of suicide attacks.

On Tuesday, the soft-spoken scholar-turned-rebel/politician-turned-peace advocate, became the newest victim of such an attack, dimming further the prospects for a future peace.

Omar Samad is the former ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009) and spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2001-2004).

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