Afghanistan’s High Peace Council has unravelled in the month since its leader was assassinated, discrediting President Hamid Karzai’s scattershot approach to making peace with the Taliban and exposing the country’s deep splits over whether any Afghan-led effort at reconciliation is worthwhile.
“The idea that there is going to be some major reconciliation has been parked to the side,” said a Western diplomat, speaking off-the-record. “The effect of it will be to call into question the way the government has been pursuing reconciliation.”
The Sept. 20 murder of the council’s leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, did not kill a peace process – there was none in progress. The government had no substantive dialogue with Taliban leaders, other council members and diplomats in Kabul now say.
The peace council, rather, was Mr. Karzai’s attempt to create the image of a national front in favour of negotiations by gathering together ex-Taliban officials and Pashtuns from the south, where the Taliban has deep roots, with people such as Mr. Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, who fought against the old Taliban regime.
The flimsiness of that front is now apparent, underscoring the ever-diminishing hope for an Afghan political settlement before NATO withdraws from its longest and costliest war ever by the end of 2014. Canadian forces pulled out in July. American and other troops have begun the first phase of their drawdown.
With the death of Mr. Rabbani, whose killer apparently claimed to have a message from Taliban leaders, the council is in disarray. Many Afghans who were already suspicious that it would cut an unsavoury peace deal see the assassination as proof of Taliban treachery.
Mr. Karzai has, typically, tried to appease his critics and supporters alike and has opened up a fresh confrontation with Pakistan, where the insurgent leadership is believed to be living. Since Taliban leaders have not responded to peace overtures, he said, “I don’t have any other answer except to say that the other side for this negotiation is Pakistan.”
Mr. Rabbani’s murder remains a mystery. Neither the Taliban nor the Haqqani network, another deadly insurgent group, has taken responsibility. But both groups sometimes claim attacks they did not carry out and deny involvement in attacks, such as those that kill Afghan civilians, which discredit them in Afghan eyes.
Arsullah Rahmani, a former Taliban government official and a High Peace Council member, said Mr. Karzai’s inner circle bears some blame for their secretive ad-hoc outreach to the Taliban.
A year ago, Mr. Karzai and others secretly met with a man they believed to be a Taliban envoy, but was nothing more than a soap-seller in Quetta, where the Taliban’s governing council, or shura, is based. They made the same mistake last month, according to Mr. Rahmani.
“If I had known Rabbani was meeting this Hamidullah, I would have told him not to trust him,” he said, referring to the man who has confessed to the Afghan intelligence service that he brought the suicide bomber from Pakistan to Mr. Rabbani. “He is not a Talib. He had no authority from the Quetta shura. I don’t know why they keep on believing these people.”
A related theory is that Mr. Rabbani was targeted as part of a political chess game over who will control Afghanistan after the NATO pullout. Several regional leaders of his Tajik political party, Jamiat-e-Islami, have already been killed in suicide bombings claimed by the Taliban this year, suggesting it is systematically eliminating its political and military rivals in advance of the NATO pullout.
Other Afghans, critical of Mr. Karzai’s peace overtures to the Taliban, say Mr. Rabbani’s murder presents a fleeting opportunity to unite the country.
“There’s a huge amount of anti-Taliban and anti-Pakistan sentiment among Pashtuns,” said Davood Moradian, an adviser to the Afghan foreign ministry and assistant professor at the American University of Afghanistan. “They haven’t been able to articulate it because there’s been a systematic campaign of assassination against moderate clergy and tribal leaders.”
If Mr. Karzai decides to mobilize that feeling, he could bring the mutually suspicious ethnic and political factions to a consensus. “But if he continues business as usual – giving something to someone and then giving something to someone else – you will see a united front against him from all corners by next year,” Mr. Moradian said.
Editor’s Note: An earlier online version and the newspaper version of this story carried an incorrect name for the man who has confessed to bringing a suicide bomber to Burhanuddin Rabbani. This online version has been corrected.