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Rabbani death may hint at divisions within Taliban

Posters of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of Afghanistan, hang above a police checkpoint near his house in Kabul on Wednesday. Rabbani, head of the country's High Peace Council, was assassinated in his home by a suicide bomber Tuesday evening.

MARTIN KUZ/STARS AND STRIPES

By MARTIN KUZ | BY STARS AND STRIPES Published: September 21, 2011

KABUL, Afghanistan — Burhanuddin Rabbani rose to prominence as a man of war during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that ended more than two decades ago.

On Wednesday, mourners gathered outside the Kabul home of the country’s former president, whose assassination there a night earlier by a suicide bomber marked a grave setback to the floundering peace process in this war-ravaged nation.

As it happened, the memorial for the 71-year-old Rabbani took place on World Peace Day, a coincidence of timing that underscored how distant the prospect for unity remains in Afghanistan.

A mullah’s prayers drifted out of loudspeakers as hundreds of people filtered through a tightly controlled police checkpoint toward Rabbani’s house, blocks from the U.S. Embassy. The slain ex-president’s visage stared down from large posters hanging on buildings along the street.

Black SUVs with matching tinted windows disgorged dozens of Afghan officials and associates of the one-time Northern Alliance leader. Many of them were clad in finely tailored suits. Their high-polished shoes reflected the bright morning sun; their faces revealed a darkness of mood.

The 71-year-old Rabbani oversaw the High Peace Council, a panel formed last year by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai to spearhead negotiations with the Taliban in hopes of ending Afghanistan’s decade-long war.

In pursuit of that elusive peace, Rabbani welcomed two men who claimed to represent the Taliban into his home Tuesday evening, Afghan and NATO officials said. As he greeted them, one detonated a bomb hidden inside his black turban, killing Rabbani and himself.

The attack drew hundreds of Afghan police officers and soldiers to Kabul’s central district for the second time in a week.

Last Tuesday, a band of insurgents armed with automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades holed-up in a high-rise under construction and fired on the U.S. Embassy and nearby NATO headquarters. Their assault lasted almost 20 hours, and combined with three coordinated suicide attacks elsewhere in the city, left 11 civilians and five police officers dead.

Rabbani’s assassination led Karzai to curtail a visit to New York, where he had flown to attend a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. He returned amid festering questions of whether Rabbani’s death — the latest in a series of high-profile assassinations of the president’s allies, including his half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai in July — suggested a country destined for yet another civil war.

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In search of answers, I spoke with a pair of political analysts in Kabul. I asked them whether Rabbani’s murder reaffirmed, in perception if not reality, the futility of Afghan officials attempting to broker conciliation with the Taliban.

Davood Moradian, a former Karzai adviser, characterized the assassination as still more proof that “the Taliban don’t live on this planet.”

“This is their way of saying, ‘We don’t want peace,’ ” said Moradian, an assistant professor of political science at The American University in Kabul. “They are only interested in trying to keep people from coming together.”

Rabbani belonged to the country’s ethnic Tajik minority, whose suspicion of Karzai — a member of the Pashtun majority — and his efforts to appease the Taliban runs wide and deep.

Yet Rabbani’s slaying elicited contradictory reactions from Taliban representatives. In interviews with media sources and on Twitter, they alternately took responsibility for and denied involvement in the attack.

The conflicting responses would appear to expose divisions within the Taliban, according to Hatem Bamehriz, senior Afghanistan director of the National Democratic Institute.

“I think what we’re seeing are the differences between the hard-liners and the moderates inside the Taliban,” Bamehriz said. “The moderates are the ones interested in peace talks; the hard-liners want to disrupt them.”

Despite the ethnic tensions across the country, Moradian described Rabbani’s death as an opportunity for Karzai to cultivate harmony, largely because of the pervasive belief among Afghans that Pakistan bears the blame for inciting unrest in Afghanistan.

“The anti-Pakistan feeling is very strong,” he said. “People feel it is Pakistan that is behind the Taliban, and that is something that can be used to bring people here together.”

But for that to happen, Moradian said, both Karzai and President Barack Obama need to become more vocal in defining and denouncing outside threats to Afghanistan’s stability.

“Right now, we are waging a war without strong political leadership in Kabul and in Washington,” he said.

Like Moradian, Bamehriz doesn’t regard civil war as imminent. Given the dwindling supply of prominent Afghan leaders, however, the loss of Rabbani adds to Karzai’s burden as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

“Rabbani was someone who played a middle role in keeping his people together,” Bamehriz said. “Can they be held together, or will they be fragmented? That could have an impact on whether peace can be achieved.”

kuzm@estripes.osd.mil

Twitter: @martinkuz

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