5 Lessons From Murder of Former Afghan President Rabbani

What we know (and what we don't) about the killing of the prominent player in Afghan peace talks and how his death will affect the politics of the region


People walk past a picture of Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan president and head of the government's peace council a day after he was killed in Kabul September 21, 2011 / (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

Tuesday's murder of Berhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of Afghanistan, mujahidin leader, member of Parliament, and chief of Afghanistan's High Peace Commission, is disruptive and significant in every way; however, it is not necessarily a disaster. But it does present some major challenges to everyone involved that must be addressed in the next six to 12 months.

We don't know who killed Rabbani. Reuters initially reported that Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, called in to claim credit for his murder. However, RFE/RL later reported that in an email, Mujahid vehemently denied the claim and distanced the Taliban from involvement in Rabbani's killing. A Pashto-language posting, repeated all over the Internet, quotes Mujahid denying any involvement or claim to involvement in Rabbani's death and asks media to "correct this huge mistake." At the moment, no one has definitively claimed responsibility for the killing.

This will rile Tajiks in the North. The peace council Rabbani led was bragging this summer that the Taliban had lost all hope and were actively seeking negotiations. At the same time, however, a coalition of Tajiks, all of whom have ties to Jamiat-e Islami, the mujahidin tanzim Berhanuddin Rabbani once commanded as part of the Northern Alliance, have been banding together to re-arm themselves and to resist efforts to negotiate a political settlement with the Taliban. We can be certain that the Tajiks will likely see this as an attack and as evidence that we should not negotiate with the Taliban.

This will probably not derail the negotiations. Assertions by well-meaning analysts notwithstanding, the Taliban leadership in Quetta have been openly and consistently seeking a means to negotiate a political settlement to the war for at least the past year or so. The very nature of the war is political, with the Taliban battling for influence and control. And the Taliban's public decision to distance themselves from Rabbani's killing says that they are very aware of how this murder can affect their ability to carry leverage at the negotiating table.

That said, negotiations in their current form are probably futile. The prospects for negotiations in their current form were more or less frozen when Mullah Omar declined to participate in the Bonn II Conference this coming December (something Rabbani's Peace Council had endorsed). The public negotiations dance is a delicate one; both sides want to look dominant while angling to get political concessions through. Complicating matters is the American demand for surrender first (demanding that the Taliban renounce violence and adopt the Constitution, which is why they're fighting in the first place). At the same time, Ambassador Crocker has publicly doubted whether Omar wants to negotiate at all, even while Omar publicly says he does. Something must change to move this seeming impasse forward, but Rabbani's murder probably won't be it.

Rabbani's death will throw Kabul politics into a tailspin. The High Peace Council was supposed to be a strong presence at the Bonn II Conference, a symbol -- led by Rabbani -- of the Coalition's earnest desire to negotiate a peace. Regardless of who actually killed him, Rabbani's murder casts doubt on everyone's ability to trust each other to negotiate in good faith. Moreover, Rabbani's appointment to the Peace Council was widely seen as an attempt by Karzai to de-fang the old mujahidin leader, as he had spearheaded the formation of an opposition bloc in Parliament called the United National Front to protect the mujahidin commanders' interests. By putting him in charge of the High Peace Council, Karzai likely wanted to distract Rabbani from politicking inside Parliament, as well as to placate the Tajiks' skepticism of the peace process. All of that is thrown into question now, and it's very likely the Tajiks will reject future prospects for political reconciliation either with Kabul or the Taliban.

So there we have it. Berhanuddin Rabbani's murder is both a big deal and not a big deal, all at once. It's still far too early to say what the precise effect of his assassination will really be, but most people who watch Afghanistan closely assume it will be enormously disruptive. To me, the real question to be answered is who actually killed him: There are groups who say it was the Afghan Taliban, and a smaller group that thinks it was the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence acting through the Haqqani network. Maybe that means the same thing, but either way it is important to assign blame first so that we can get a handle for how everyone else will be positioning themselves. Until that happens, I don't think anyone can say with confidence what will be happening next.