Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of the Afghan High Peace Council tasked with negotiating a peace settlement with the Taliban insurgency, was assassinated in his home in the heavily guarded diplomatic enclave in Kabul. The killer, escorted into Rabbani’s home by two council members who insisted that he did not need to be fully searched, had a bomb concealed in his turban. When Rabbani appeared, the killer detonated the bomb, killing Rabbani and seriously wounding Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, another integral player in the peace process. A peace process that has been dealt a serious, if not fatal, blow.
Rabbani had been president of Afghanistan prior to the emergence of the Taliban government, having been a leader of a formidable mujahideen resistance group that fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. He became president of the country in 1992, and ruled until 1996, when the Taliban assumed power and ousted him. He went into exile and became a leader of the Northern Alliance, which continued to fight against the Taliban until the United States deposed the terrorist-harboring government in 2001. Since the Taliban had never gained international recognition, it was Rabbani who, in a critical show of support, formally handed the government over to Hamid Karzai in 2002. That support helped gain Mr. Karzai a second term in 2009. Mr. Rabbani was an ethnic Tajik, Afghanistan’s second largest ethnic group, while Mr. Karzai is a Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group.
Ethnic rivalries play a large part in Afghan politics, and while Karzai had been supported by Rabbani, his death might engender a high level of resentment among senior members of the mostly Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance, who already harbor suspicions that president Karzai has been colluding with the Taliban. Mr. Rabbani’s death is also likely to exacerbate other regional and ethnic rivalries, much of which fuels the Taliban insurgency. Many of those minorities, fearful of any reconciliation with the Taliban, have begun re-arming themselves, raising the distinct possibility that civil war will break out in 2014, when U.S. troops are scheduled to leave the country.
President Karzai, who was at the United Nations General Assembly with Barack Obama at the time of the assassination, termed the killing an ”act of brutality and cowardice,” saying Rabbani sacrificed his life for Afghanistan’s peace. “The mission Rabbani had undertaken was vital for the Afghan people and for the country”s security and peace,” Karzai explained. “I don’t think that we can fill his place easily. He was one of the few people in Afghanistan with the distinction that we cannot easily find in societies. But this will not deter us from continuing on the path that we have and we will definitely succeed.”
President Obama called the High Peace Council leader’s death a “tragic loss,” but vowed that both he and Mr. Karzai “will not be deterred from creating a path whereby Afghans can live in freedom and safety and security and prosperity, and … it is going to be important to continue the efforts to bring all elements of Afghan society together to end what has been a senseless cycle of violence.”
Despite such high-minded intentions, recent events have demonstrated a distressing ability by the Taliban to penetrate ostensibly secure facilities and carry out several successful high-profile attacks. On May 28, a suicide bomber killed northern Afghanistan’s top police commander, Gen. Mohammed Daoud, provincial police chief Shah Jehan Noori, and two German soldiers when he was able to infiltrate a high-level meeting in Taloqan, Takhar province. A German NATO commander in northern Afghanistan, Maj. Gen. Markus Kneip, was seriously wounded as well.
On July 22nd, Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, was gunned down by a close associate at his home in Kandahar. A prominent cleric was killed at his funeral by a turban bomber. The mayor of Kandahar, Ghulam Haider Hamidi, was killed five days later by another turban bomber, and Karzai inner-circle member Jan Mohammad Khan, a presidential adviser on tribal issues and a former governor of Uruzgan province, was also gunned down in July.
On September 10th, 77 NATO troops were wounded in a truck bomb attack on a coalition base. Two Afghan civilians were killed and another 25 were wounded. On September 13th, a coordinated Taliban attack in Kabul against the U.S. embassy and NATO headquarters lasted for more than 20 hours. In that incident, 16 Afghans were killed, including five police officers and 11 civilians, more than half of whom were children, and 23 others were wounded. It was the third significant attack in four months in the capital city, including a twin car bomb attack on a British cultural agency, killing 8 in August, and a suicide bomb assault on the heavily guarded Inter-Continental hotel last June, where 18 people lost their lives.
Many of these attacks have been blamed by both Afghan and U.S. authorities on Taliban factions in northwestern Pakistan known as the Haqqani network, which is allegedly supported by members of Pakistan’s security forces. Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik leader who lost to Karzai in the 2009 election, called Rabbani’s death a “big loss for all Afghan people.” Yet he has been critical of the attempt by the current government to reconcile with the Taliban, warning that “we should recognize and know our enemy from lower ranks up to the top officials of the country because by any means, by any way, they are trying to kill us and eliminate all high-ranking officials and jihadi leaders.”
Yet Shukria Barakzai, a lawmaker from Kabul, visibly shaken as she stood outside Rabbani’s house, disagreed. “We don’t want the whole peace process to get stuck,” she said. “We have to continue, we have to.”
Do we have to continue? “We” is a loaded word. Ten years after the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan to root out the Taliban and deny al-Qaeda a base of operations, it seems almost surreal that eight-in-ten Americans once supported that effort. Yet what was it, exactly, the American public supported? Certainly, in the wake of the 9⁄11, taking it to the perpetrators of that attack was eminently reasonable. But the original military campaign was over in nine weeks. Since then, a counter-insurgency comprised of nation-building has not only made victory impossible, but impossible to define. And as a result, support for the war has dropped precipitously: 58 percent of Americans no longer believe we should be involved.
Perhaps if we prosecuted war as we once did, victory in the cauldron of cultural pathologies and inexorable Islamic jihad that is Afghanistan might be possible. But as long as “winning” is about winning “hearts and minds,” as opposed to destroying the enemy’s will to continue, we remain in a purgatory of our own making. It is a purgatory where the clarity and purpose of our invasion in 2001 has given way to the idea that, somehow, we can split the difference between civilization and barbarity. Maybe the Afghans have to negotiate with Taliban thugs, but we don’t.