Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Country Director, IWPR Afghanistan
Just hours after the assassination of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani on September 20, a deathly pall fell over the capital Kabul.
Police clad in helmets and body armour stopped the few vehicles moving around the dark and dusty streets, demanding identification from those inside.
But the security clampdown was too little, too late.
Rabbani was dead, murdered in his home as night fell on the city – and symbolically, perhaps, on Afghanistan itself.
President Hamid Karzai had appointed Rabbani to lead the High Peace Council, a group of nearly 70 elder statesmen whose mission was to seek an agreement with the Taleban to stop the fighting.
The assassination was the insurgents’ response to the peace effort.
The bomber posed as a Taleban commander coming to talk peace, and reportedly used high level connections to arrange the meeting. He waited for several days, accepting the hospitality afforded to peace emissaries. Once Rabbani arrived back from a trip to Iran, the meeting was set up.
According to Afghan custom, the guest took the older man’s hand and bowed his head. Then he detonated the bomb hidden in his turban, close to Rabbani’s chest.
Afghans shivered at Rabbani’s death and wondered who might be next. But many harbour worries that run much deeper than that.
If the Taleban could wipe out a former president, my Afghan colleagues asked, then who was safe in Kabul?
Many believe that everyone is now vulnerable, even President Karzai, and that the government is powerless to do anything about it. Afghans’ confidence in their government has been shaken to the core, and claims of victory by the generals leading the international troops against the Taleban in southern provinces mean little to them.
In a Kabul taxi, I asked my driver Sabur, a young man of 23, what he thought about the assassination. He shook his head sadly, saying it was not good.
As he looked at me in the darkened car, the oncoming headlights flashing across his worried face, Sabur said, “Since I first became aware of my life, there has been nothing but war. We are all afraid now. I have no hope for the future.”
One thing is clear – the Taleban are winning the biggest battle – the psychological one.
The attack on Rabbani follows a clear pattern in which the insurgents have picked high-profile targets that may have little effect on the overall progress of the war, but attract huge amounts of attention. In recent months, this has included an attack on the Intercontinental Hotel, another on the British Council’s office, the downing of a military helicopter that killed 30 including members of US special forces, and most recently a prolonged attack on the American embassy.
A scholarly figure who delighted in the nuances of poetry, Rabbani held the post of Afghan president from 1992 to 1996, dark years of civil war that paved the way for the rise of the Taleban. In the years that followed, Rabbani was titular head of the Northern Alliance, the alliance of forces that held out against the Taleban and then returned triumphant to Kabul as allies of the United States-led coalition in 2001.
He remained in the background over much of the last decade until last year, when he accepted the leadership of the High Peace Council. It was a tough assignment.
Since the council’s inception a year ago, the Taleban have mocked its peace efforts, on one occasion sending a Pakistani shopkeeper to engage in spurious talks.
Rabbani’s death is a blow to the very idea that reconciliation with the Taleban is possible, or even desirable.
It could be argued that his murder was really the settling of an old score – he had after all, had been leader of the Northern Alliance, the Taleban’s arch-enemy. Many asked how he could realistically make peace with his old foes, at a time when they are growing from strength to strength.
If that argument is true, then perhaps the chances of peace are not completely gone.
However, the assassination can also be viewed as the opening salvo of a civil war that many Afghans fear will come soon after international forces complete their drawdown in three years’ time – a conflict that could make the civil war of the early 1990s look tame.
Is the international community willing to risk that? And if so, is it willing to accept that after billions of dollars have been spent on aid and armaments, and thousands of lives have been lost, there is so little to show for it?
Despite ten years of fighting in Afghanistan, the situation is worse than ever. Rabbani’s death makes one thing clear – the work of the international community is far from done.
Peter Eichstaedt is IWPR country director in Afghanistan.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.
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