Afghan assasination dashes peace hopes

Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The assassination of a former Afghan president reflects the dangers of negotiations with the Taliban: Any effort toward a peace deal can bring deadly action to stop it from factions within the multi-headed insurgency.

Now supporters of the slain Burhanuddin Rabbani angrily warned on Wednesday that there is no hope in seeking negotiations, a key policy of President Hamid Karzai that the United States has backed. Afghans involved in peace efforts are fearful of reaching out to anyone within the Taliban and risk being targeted themselves.

Many fear such assassinations could accelerate as the Taliban and other insurgents try to bolster their positions ahead of a planned withdrawal of U.S. and other international combat forces at the end of 2014.

"How are we supposed to negotiate with these wild devils?" said the governor of northern Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor. "We need peace, but peace with who? We want peace with people who know the value of peace."

"The Taliban are not sympathetic. They are killing our people. They killed our leader — Rabbani. We don't want to waste time with these types of people," he told The Associated Press.

The 70-year-old Rabbani was the leader of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, which helped overthrow Taliban rule in the country. He headed the country's High Peace Council, set up by Karzai to work toward a political solution to the decade-long war. It has made little headway since it was formed a year ago, but it is backed by many in the international community as helping move toward a settlement.

Rabbani was killed in his Kabul home Tuesday evening by a suicide attacker with a bomb in his turban, who gained entry by convincing officials including Karzai's advisers that he was a Taliban leader wanting to reconcile.

The U.S.-led coalition said another attacker was also involved, but that could not be confirmed by Afghan officials. The Interior Ministry said one person had been detained in connection with Rabbani's death — the driver of the car who took the bomber to Rabbani's house. Noor said the driver was found with incriminating documents, but did not reveal further details.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Gen. Mohammad Ayub Salangi, police chief in Kabul, said the Taliban were behind it.

When contacted by the AP, Taliban spokesmen declined to discuss the killing and spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said they were still investigating it, which leaves the prospects for talks in limbo.

Efforts at bringing the Taliban into negotiations have long failed to make progress for multiple reasons. Some Taliban figures have been willing to enter talks but their actual influence within the movement has proven unclear. Members of the Taliban are not always on the same page, and the movement includes several powerful allies that could feel threatened by any peace effort. One such ally, the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, has emerged as one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan's stability, and nearly all Taliban attacks in and around the Afghan capital have been blamed on the group.

Competing interests between the numerous players in the Afghan war have also set back peace efforts. U.S. talks with the Taliban collapsed recently after Afghan officials, nervous that the secret and independent talks would undercut Karzai, scuttled them. Neighboring Pakistan is also extremely wary of any peace talks that leave it and its interests out of the equation.

Karzai, the peace council and international officials have had separate informal talks with individuals said to represent the Taliban, but no formal negotiations have gained traction.

Karzai, who had been attending a U.N. General Assembly meeting in New York, arrived back in Afghanistan late Wednesday and was expected to lead a memorial for Rabbani in the coming days.

The U.N. Security Council condemned "the terrorist attack" against Rabbani "in the strongest terms on Wednesday and council members reiterated "their firm commitment to support the government of Afghanistan in its efforts to advance the peace and reconciliation process."

Even if Karzai eventually replaces Rabanni, it is unlikely his replacement will receive the support that Rabbani might have mustered. Also, anyone active in the peace process is now even more wary about moving around the country to talk with Taliban willing to reconcile.

"How can we feel safe? Look what happened to Rabbani?" said Sarajuddin Sirat, who is active in the peace council and heads Rabbani's political party in Baghlan province in the north.

The all but crushed prospects for reconciliation with the Taliban leaves the U.S. and its international partners few choices in their effort bring stability to the country. The U.S.-led coalition has spent tens of billions of dollars to try and train more than 300,000 Afghan army and police forces so they can gradually take charge of security as the foreign forces withdraw. But President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw 33,000 of the nearly 100,000 U.S. troops here by the end of next summer has put the transition process in overdrive.

A series of spectacular attacks by the Taliban this year also has raised doubts about the ability of Afghan security forces. They include an attack last week against the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters that led to a 20-hour standoff in downtown Kabul. That attack was blamed on the Haqqanis.

Last week, the U.S. ambassador to Islamabad, Cameron Munter, said in remarks broadcast on Radio Pakistan that there was evidence linking the Haqqani insurgent network to the Pakistani government.

U.S. officials have long suspected links between Pakistan's military and the Haqqani network. Many Afghans also think that Pakistan, which has in the past backed the Taliban, is deepening its involvement through groups like the Haqqanis to ensure it is major player in a post-NATO Afghanistan.

Rabbani's death only deepens rifts between the country's ethnic minorities, especially between those who made up the Northern Alliance — including Tajiks like Rabbani — and the majority Pashtun, who make up the backbone of the Taliban.

Some senior Northern Alliance members accuse Karzai, a Pashtun, of colluding with the Taliban by trying to negotiate peace with them. They warn that any Taliban in the government would try to return Afghanistan to an extremist Islamic state.

"By any means, by any way, they (the Taliban) are trying to kill us and eliminate all high-ranking officials," said Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik leader who lost to Karzai in the 2009 presidential election.

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Amir Shah, Deb Riechmann, Rahim Faiez, Heidi Vogt in Kabul and Kathy Gannon in Islamabad contributed.

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