KABUL, Afghanistan — Former Afghan president and chief negotiator for peace talks with the Taliban, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was killed Tuesday in a suicide attack at his home in the capital, Kabul.
The assassination of Rabbani, 71, a polarizing but influential figure in Afghan politics, marks a serious setback for the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Rabbani was serving as the chief of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council — a body tasked with spearheading peace negotiations with Taliban insurgents — and was a key ally of the United States and Karzai.
“The Taliban sent a clear message to the government of President Karzai with this attack: We are not going to talk to you. We reject any type of peace negotiations with you,” said Mir Ahmad Joyenda, an Afghan member of parliament.
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“I think from now on, the Karzai government will change its policy toward the peace process,” he added.
Rabbani was killed Tuesday evening by a suicide bomber posing as a reformed Taliban fighter seeking to make peace with the government. The attacker, who reportedly met Rabbani at his home in Kabul, detonated a bomb hidden in his turban as he greeted the former president.
Four of Rabbani’s bodyguards were also killed in the blast.
The Taliban, normally eager to claim responsibility for high-level or spectacular attacks, were conspicuously unavailable for comment, and as of late Tuesday night did not release a statement on the assassination.
“Those responsible for this attack show their disregard for the efforts that Dr. Rabbani led in the cause of peace for Afghanistan,” a statement from the U.S. embassy in Kabul said.
“This kind of cowardly attack will only harden our resolve to work together with the Afghan government and people to end the insurgency and realize a peaceful and prosperous Afghanistan,” it read.
The attack, which comes as NATO troops begin their gradual withdrawal from Afghanistan and U.S. officials laud direct talks with the Taliban, appears to have struck at the heart of the U.S.-funded and government-backed peace process here.
Rabbani, a fierce anti-Taliban commander in the 1990s, was appointed to broker a peace deal with the Taliban one year ago.
Since then, little headway has been made in persuading Taliban fighters to lay down arms and join the Afghan government.
While the U.S.-led coalition transfers security responsibilities to Afghan forces in seven key areas, violence is on the rise. This is the deadliest year for Afghan civilians since the war began in 2001, according to the United Nations.
Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik whose official presidential term from 1992-1996 was marred by bloody Afghan infighting that eventually swept the Taliban to power, was a reviled figure not only among the ethnic Pashtuns that make-up the Taliban ranks but among ordinary Afghans who saw him as an opportunistic warlord who presided over mass atrocities.
“One less warlord in this country, even though we have thousands more to go,” said Mohammed, a former Afghan interpreter for U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan.
“I don’t care whether or not someone is anti-Taliban,” Mohammed said. “Thousands of people were killed under his rule. And he acted like he was going to save Afghanistan.”
Not only will Rabbani’s death weaken Karzai, who has seen some of his most trusted advisors assassinated by Taliban insurgents in recent months, but it will also likely fracture the already virulently anti-Taliban groups in the north, analysts say.
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Many Rabbani-linked Tajik strongmen in the northern provinces — and who opposed peace talks with the largely Pashtun Taliban from the outset — may use Rabbani’s death to strengthen and re-arm ethnic-based militias that would fight not only the Taliban but an Afghan government ready to negotiate with the Islamists, according to observers.
Following the news of Rabbani’s death, the Tajik governor of Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province, Atta Mohammed Noor, told local news channel TOLO TV that the government “could not have peace with the Taliban.”
“Many key northern leaders were already vocally skeptical of Rabbani’s nominal pro-negotiation stance,” said one Western political analyst based in Kabul. “If the Karzai government continues to pursue talks, we can expect an angrier, more alienated and possibly re-armed north.”