An Assasination the Taliban Doesn't Want Credit For

A rare no comment after the killing of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani

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In the aftermath of recent attacks in Kabul like the assault on the Intercontinental Hotel and the strike on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters, the Taliban has rushed to proudly claim responsibility for the violence--even while the U.S. blames the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. But in the wake of yesterday's assassination of former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani, the man spearheading the Afghan government's efforts to strike a peace deal with the Taliban, something curious is happening: Taliban officials are sounding uncharacteristically cautious and issuing conflicting reports about whether they killed Rabbani. As NATO's Twitter feed, which engaged in a flame war with the Taliban last week, marveled today, "Taliban avoiding comment? Usually much to say, but now?"

The Taliban sounded like its usual self yesterday, when Reuters quoted Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid as claiming responsibility for the attack, which was carried out by a suicide bomber who pretended to be interested in talks. "As soon as Rabbani came three steps forward to hug Mohammad Masoom, he triggered his explosive-filled jacket killing Rabbani," Mujahid was quoted as saying. But Taliban official Abdulqahar Balkhi later denied the report on Twitter, noting that Mujahid had rejected the "claims of Reuters" and had said "nothing" about Rabbani's death yet. "Our information is not complete regarding the matter," an emailed statement issued in the name of Mujahid declared, dismissing the "baseless" Reuters report. "We don't want to say anything about this at the moment." In a follow-up report, Reuters claimed that a man with Mujahid's voice and telephone number claimed that the Taliban was responsible for the attack in three separate calls with a reporter in Pakistan on Tuesday and Wednesday (the news agency adds that a senior Taliban commander operating inside Afghanistan also confirmed that claim).

So what's going on? There are several theories. The Los Angeles Times notes that the Taliban is not monolithic and "a splinter faction could have carried out the killing without guidance from the central leadership." Meanwhile, analysts tell Reuters that the Taliban often decides whether to claim responsibility for an attack based on political considerations rather than whether they actually had a role in the strike. "The Taliban may be considering how their largely Pashtun supporters might be affected by a wave of anger surging through a Tajik community angered by the killing of their most authoritative leader," Reuters writes, adding that the attack could inflame Afghan public opinion in general. "Rabbani's murder by a man who had ostensibly come to talk about peace--and appears to have detonated his explosives while exchanging greetings--may be seen by some as extreme treachery, even in a bitter, no-holds-barred war," the news agency explains.

But Reuters also suggests a third reason for the conflicting reports: The Taliban may be suffering from internal divisions. Diplomats tell The Guardian that "Mullah Omar and other high-ranking Taliban leaders may not have approved, or even have been aware of" the operation to kill Rabbani, while Hatem Bamehriz of the National Democratic Institute tells Stars and Stripes that the Taliban's bewildering statements may speak to "differences between the hard-liners and the moderates inside the Taliban. The moderates are the ones interested in peace talks; the hard-liners want to disrupt them." Those fault lines could prove critical as uncertainty mounts about whether negotiations with the Taliban can survive without Rabbani to shepherd them along.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.