Afghanistan - analysis

Who killed Burhanuddin Rabbani ... and why?

Reuters/Omar Sobhani

The Taliban have claimed responsibility for the assassination of former Afghan president-turned-peacebroker Burhanuddin Rabbani, according to the Reuters news agency. But the murder is a blow to peace moves that the insurgents are reported to have taken part in. Who might be responsible for the killing? And what effect will it have on Afghan politics?


A Taliban spokesperson told Reuters news agency that the Islamist insurgents killed Rabbani, naming Mohammad Masoom as the perpetrator and Wahid Yar, a former Taliban minister, as his accomplice.

But he said that the killer triggered an explosive-filled jacket, while police said that the bomb was concealed in his turban, a claim borne out by intelligence sources, who said the killer’s head was missing after the attack.

Wikimedia Commons/Pajhwok Afghan News

News outlets that usually receive such claims were puzzled not to be contacted on this question, casting doubt on whether it spoke for the whole movement.

Karzai last year appointed Rabbani head of the High Peace Council, a body charged with bringing the Taliban and other insurgent groups to the negotiating table. It was a promise of high-level contacts that brought the former president back from a visit to Iran to Kabul to meet his killers.

Although the peace council is not credited with any major accomplishments in moves for peace, the assassination will be a blow to them and that is puzzling. An Eid message Taliban leader Mullah Omar was widely interpreted as adopting an unusually conciliatory tone and several contacts are reported to have taken place.

And the Haqqani network, another Islamist group operating out of the Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan, recently told Reuters that they might talk to the US if the Taliban did so.

On the other hand, the Pashtun-majority Taliban reportedly detested Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik warlord with the responsibility for many atrocities on his CV.

Karzai had two connected reasons for giving him the peace council post.

Firstly, he was an important powerbroker, heading the United National Front, which opposed Karzai during the last presidential election but then managed to barter itself places in government.

Secondly, the appointment of a Tajik aimed to calm widespread fears among Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic group that a deal with the Taliban would mean a return of the unbridled Pashtun domination that pertained when they were in power. Karzai is also a Pashtun, partly owing his position to his ability to play off the country’s ethnic groups and warlords against each other.

Dossier: AfPak news and analysis

So the assassination will increase Tajik suspicion of talks with the Taliban, whose success depends on bringing the group into a coalition government. It probably won’t do much to reassure the country’s other ethnic groups, such as the Hazara who suffered some bitter repression under Taliban rule, either.

Of course, the Taliban are not a homogeneous group and, as in all peace processes, some factions are likely to be more opposed to compromise than others. The assassination may be the work of a faction rather than having been ordered by internationally known leaders.

What remains of Al Qaeda in the region would also be happy to see any peace moves stalled, since one of the US’s conditions for an agreement is that the Taliban cut all links with the movement. That does not appear to have been a sticking point so far.

Iran, which was hosting Rabbani before he returned to meet his assassins, has a different interpretation.

The assassination is the latest in a series that includes Karzai’s half-brother Ahmed Wali and northern regional police chief Mohammed Daud Daud, another Tajik, it points out.

"America and Nato must clarify whether they were complicit in several recent assassinations in Afghanistan or rather that they are unable to establish security in this country," parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani said Wednesday.

"Rabbani was a friend of Iran and opposed the signing of the security pact between Afghanistan and America," a statement quoted foreign ministry spokesperson Ramin Mehmanparast as saying.

His "martyrdom on the eve of the World Peace Day, shows terrorism is spreading in this country despite the 10-year presence of foreign forces under the pretext of establishing peace and security" he added.

Afghan conspiracy theorists will no doubt echo these statements. Some doubt whether the US could ever agree to the Taliban demand that all its forces quit Afghan territory, especially in the light of its proximity to rising powers China, Russia and India and that major Washington bugbear, Iran.

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