The South Asia Channel

Killing Rabbani

It is a month since a man claiming to be a peace envoy from the Taleban leadership council (the Quetta Shura) managed to see and kill the former president of Afghanistan and head of the High Peace Council (HPC), Burhanuddin Rabbani. The killing has had major repercussions, with the most senior Afghan officials, including President ...

Phil Goodwin/Getty Images
Phil Goodwin/Getty Images

It is a month since a man claiming to be a peace envoy from the Taleban leadership council (the Quetta Shura) managed to see and kill the former president of Afghanistan and head of the High Peace Council (HPC), Burhanuddin Rabbani. The killing has had major repercussions, with the most senior Afghan officials, including President Hamid Karzai, directly or indirectly accusing the Quetta Shura and Pakistan of being behind the attack, consequently halting talks with the Taleban and cooling bilateral relations. Yet the Afghan government has not produced any evidence to back up these claims. Indeed, the investigation into Rabbani’s murder has resulted in no real clues as to the identity of the plotters, who ordered the killing or how leading members of the High Peace Council, as well as President Karzai, were so easily fooled.

The bare bones of the Rabbani assassination plot have now emerged, following the release by the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), of a tranche of documents and video testimony, including that of two key people who were arrested after the killing: HPC member and former Taleb, Rahmatullah Wahidyar (whom NDS has said is not suspected of being part of the conspiracy), and the go-between, Hamidullah Akhundzada, who introduced the killer to Wahidyar and Rabbani.

The tale began with Wahidyar, who is a former Taleban deputy minister and former minister in Rabbani’s mujahedin government from the 1990s, being asked by the HPC leadership to drum up contacts in the Quetta Shura with a view to starting peace talks. He made contact with a man called Abdul Satar, whom Wahidyar described as "a former Taleban official" (no other details provided), who in turn introduced him to a "former Taleban commander" called Hamidullah Akhundzada. Both Abdul Satar and Hamidullah visited Kabul and met Wahidyar, Massum Stanekzai (the Secretary of the HPC) and Rabbani.

According to Wahidyar, over the next four months, Hamidullah actively reported back on the progress he was making in firming up contacts with the Quetta Shura (although Hamidullah himself makes no mention of any such reporting in his testimony). A week before the killing, he telephoned Wahidyar and said the Quetta Shura would be sending an envoy (although probably not himself) to Kabul in order to discuss opening direct talks with the Afghan government. The man who was sent, Esmatullah, came to Kabul with a letter and two audio messages, one for the HPC and one for Rabbani’s ears only.

President Karzai was told about the envoy and saw the letter and heard one of the audio messages. The envoy’s letter, a copy of which was released to Tolo TV, is weak. Afghans can negotiate peace, it says, but unless the international military fully leaves, the Afghan struggle against colonialism and for independence will continue (this is pretty well what the Taleban say publicly).  One of the audio messages has also been released by NDS and is even thinner on substance; it is basically a series of rhetorical questions for the "honoured teacher", Ustad Rabbani, on whether Afghanistan today is better than the Taleban-era. 

All sources say it was Karzai who ordered Rabbani back to Kabul (he was in Iran at a conference where, it was reported, an official Taleban delegation was present). Rabbani cut short his trip, returned to Kabul and within a few hours of landing, received Wahidyar, Stanekzai and the ‘envoy’, Esmatullah in his home. He blew himself up in the very moment he greeted Rabbani, killing them both.

NDS arrested Wahidyar and Hamidullah and later handed out their videoed statements to journalists, along with the testimony of the manager of the HPC guesthouse where the killer had stayed and one of the audio messages he had brought.

In his confession, Hamidullah gives his name, father’s name and tribe (Zadran) and says he is from Kandahar. He looks to be in his 50s. Wahidyar has said that Hamidullah was a "former Taleban commander" and a "resident of Kandahar". NDS spokesman Lutfullah Mashal has said he appeared to be "an ordinary Taleb, living in Quetta, with no known position during the Emirate and possibly, he is Achikzai." One man who met Hamidullah briefly on one of his earlier visits to Kabul, HPC member and former Taleban ambassador to Islamabad and Saudi Arabia, Habibullah Fowzi, described him as uneducated, not a mullah, and a "former mujahed," rather than an "original Taleb." Fawzi said that, although it is difficult to size a man up in 20 minutes, Hamidullah appeared to be "an ordinary man, not a special man to have for such a mission."

Indeed, in Hamidullah’s videoed confession, he comes over as more feckless, than master conspirator. Despite saying he was told about the turban bombing plot in advance, after introducing the killer, Esmatullah, to Wahidyar, he not only accompanied him to Kabul, but also brought his own family along for the trip. Even after seeing news of the assassination on television, he stayed in Kabul. He was clearly not versed in phone security – the NDS arrested him almost immediately after it traced the assassin’s final phone calls.

The bottom line of all this is that we are still no nearer to understanding who Hamidullah, the person who established the link to the HPC and Rabbani, ‘is’ – his tribe, political background, what he and his family did during the jihad and Emirate, in other words, all the normal questions which everyone always asks in Afghanistan to identify and position an unknown person – and which should have been answered, one would have thought, when the HPC officials first made contact with him.

As to the identity of the killer, Esmatullah, even less is known. He appeared to have been allowed into Rabbani’s home, un-vetted, not searched and with no-one even knowing for sure his father’s name.

Such appears to have been the very thin thread on which hopes for peace talks with the Taleban were hung. From the evidence released, it remains unfathomable why Wahidyar, Stanekzai, Rabbani and the President himself trusted these men. After the debacle of the shopkeeper impersonating Mullah Mansur (the probable third in command in the Quetta Shura) who managed to get into the Presidential Palace in November 2010 and was given large sums of money, maybe it should not come as a surprise how easily everyone was gulled. However, is difficult to argue with the assessment of the former EU and UN envoy Fransesc Vendrell, that President Karzai set up a way of conducting peace talks which appears to have been inherently problematic and unprofessional, and left the participants vulnerable to trickery and attack.

None of the evidence released so far indicates who ordered the killing and when the Hamidullah-HPC conduit became toxic – was it a plot from the start or, as Hamidullah contends, infiltrated? And if so, by whom?

Nothing, apart from the assumption that the plot appears to have been hatched in Quetta on Pakistani soil, would appear to justify pointing the finger of blame at the Taleban leadership or the ISI – although there is no evidence, either, that they are innocent. However, Karzai’s decision to blame Pakistan worked beautifully to dampen anger domestically, calming Rabbani’s allies who were against talking to the Taleban in the first place and are ultra-hostile to Pakistan. Possibly Karzai’s move also indicates that he himself was never too enamoured of talking to the Taleban either. There has been fall out, however, in the souring of bilateral relations with Pakistan and the shelving of the policy of talking to the Taleban.

The Taleban have hardly made things easier. This assassination was carried out by a man who was, or purported to be, a Taleban envoy. According to the movement’s own rules, set out in their code of conduct, suicide bombings must be authorised. Yet spokesmen have neither accepted nor denied responsibility and have, in a gesture of unprecedented evasiveness, largely kept their phones switched off during the last four weeks.

If this assassination was authorised, it would be a clear message that the Taleban leadership does not want a negotiated end to the war. (And in this case, it would not matter whether anyone viewed the HPC or Rabbani as a viable means of negotiation). If it was a rogue operation, then the Taleban has severe command and control problems within its ranks. If it was carried out by a group other than the Taleban, the silence seems only explicable if the Taleban assumed (or knew) it was done with ISI assistance (bearing in mind that the leadership has covered up for the ISI in the past). Whatever the case, the likely aim of killing Rabbani – scuppering the very idea of peace talks – appears to have been very successfully carried out.

Kate Clark is a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network.

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