Rabbani's death deals blow to U.S. peace plan

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 20, 2011 

KABUL, Afghanistan — An assassin with a bomb hidden in his turban on Tuesday killed former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, the chairman of the government’s peace council, in the latest in a slew of high-profile attacks and a major blow to U.S.-backed efforts to draw Taliban-led insurgents into peace talks.

The blast inside Rabbani’s home in Kabul’s diplomatic enclave also wounded Rahmatullah Wahidyar, a former Taliban minister and peace council member, and Masoom Stanekzai, a top aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the director of the peace council’s secretariat, Afghan officials said.

The bomber gained entry to Rabbani’s heavily guarded residence close to the U.S. Embassy by pretending to be a Taliban commander who wanted to surrender to the former president, officials said.

Karzai cut short a visit to New York for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, returning to Afghanistan after meeting with President Barack Obama.

Rabbani “has sacrificed his life for the sake of Afghanistan and for the peace of our country,” Karzai said. “We will miss him very much . . . a terrible loss.”

Obama and Karzai said Rabbani’s death wouldn't derail the U.S.-backed strategy of pursuing peace talks with Taliban-led insurgents as the United States and other foreign powers begin withdrawing their combat forces from Afghanistan after a decade of war.

But Marine Gen. John Allen, the commander of the U.S.-led international forces, said in a statement that Rabbani’s death “is another outrageous indicator” that the Taliban “do not want peace, but rather war.”

Rabbani, a patriarchal figure for the country’s Tajik ethnic minority who headed a major guerrilla faction against the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, was the chairman of the High Peace Council of political, religious and cultural figures whom Karzai appointed last year to promote reconciliation with the Taliban. The members include former insurgents such as Wahidyar, who served as a minister in the Taliban regime that ruled from 1996 until its overthrow in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

The Taliban took credit for Tuesday's attack in telephone calls to news media. But the most spectacular attacks in Kabul have been staged by the allied Haqqani network, which is based in neighboring Pakistan and allegedly backed by Pakistan’s most powerful spy agency.

Rabbani was the latest target in a series of assassinations this year of prominent Afghans, which have rocked the political establishment. They’ve included the police chief of northern Afghanistan, who was a top commander in Rabbani’s guerrilla faction; Jan Mohammad Khan, a former provincial governor and top aide to Karzai; and Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar, the nation’s second largest city. Hamidi also was killed by an insurgent with a bomb hidden in his turban.

The attack on Rabbani’s home was the fourth spectacular breach in three months of what’s supposedly the tightly guarded heart of the national capital.

A week ago, insurgents spent 20 hours in a partially built high-rise firing rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons into the U.S. Embassy and the headquarters of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, the U.S.-led contingent that's fighting Taliban-led insurgents.

That attack followed insurgent assaults on the British cultural center last month and the InterContinental Hotel in July. U.S. officials blamed the three attacks on the Haqqani network.

The violence has fed public anxiety about the ability of Karzai’s forces to replace U.S. and allied combat troops after they complete their pullout by the end of 2014, and has raised serious doubts about U.S.-backed efforts to draw insurgent leaders into peace talks.

The U.S.-funded High Peace Council has made virtually no headway. Karzai and his key aides have pursued their own efforts but have gained little ground, while U.S. contacts with a former aide to Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, who’s thought to be operating from Pakistan, have produced no known results.

In an Aug. 28 message published on the Taliban’s website to mark the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, Omar repeated that there could be no negotiations until all foreign troops departed.

Appearing with Karzai, Obama said Tuesday that the U.S. and Afghan governments would continue to pursue their strategy.

“We both believe that despite this incident, we will not be deterred from creating a path whereby Afghans can live in freedom and safety and security and prosperity,” Obama said.

However, some U.S. officials charge that the attacks underscore how Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. combat troops has removed any incentive for insurgent leaders to open peace talks. Some also see the strikes as messages from Pakistan's powerful Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate that Pakistan won't support negotiations in which it doesn't have a major role to protect its interests.

“The Taliban really don’t have any interest” in negotiations, said Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department intelligence analyst who's now with the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Rabbani was the leader of Jamiat Islami, one of the major anti-Soviet guerrilla factions that took power in 1992. He served a first stint as the president of Afghanistan until 1996, when he was forced to flee the Taliban takeover of Kabul.

He became the titular leader of the minority Tajik-dominated United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, better known as the Northern Alliance. The multi-ethnic coalition fought the Taliban and, backed by U.S. airpower, drove the hard-line Islamist militia from Kabul in 2001.

Rabbani began a second stint as interim president in November 2001 but he gave up the position after just over a month to make way for Karzai.

In Tuesday's attack, the suicide bomber and an accomplice presented themselves to Wahidyar as Taliban commanders who wanted to surrender to Rabbani, said Afghan officials and Fazel Karmi Aimaq, a former lawmaker who was close to the former president.

Joined by Stanekzai, they drove to Rabbani’s compound, a block behind the fortresslike U.S. Embassy on a street that's closed to traffic and guarded by bodyguards from Rabbani’s native province of Badakhshan.

The bomber and his accomplice weren't properly frisked, Aimaq said.

The four waited inside the compound for Rabbani, who was returning from the Iranian capital of Tehran. When he walked in about 4:30 p.m., the bomber embraced the former president, laid his head on Rabbani’s chest and detonated the explosives.

The bomber’s unidentified accomplice was wounded and arrested, police said.

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent. Landay reported from Washington. Special correspondent Adeel Raza contributed to this article from Washington.)

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