Head of the Afghan High Peace Council and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani has been assassinated in treacherous fashion by a Taliban emissary ostensibly negotiating peace. This is the highest profile assassination since the fall of the Taliban government post-9/11. The circumstances surrounding the murder bear eerie parallels but also significant differences with the assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Masoud two days before 9/11. Both victims were Tajiks, but whereas Masoud’s assassination was arguably the harbinger of 9/11, its subsequent fallout in the shape of the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan by US forces and the ouster of the Taliban regime, Rabbani’s removal will merely mean a serious setback to the inherently difficult project of a peaceful settlement with the Taliban. That may well be the intended message behind the assassination. Interestingly, the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid was at first quick to claim responsibility and even threatened more such assassinations, but 24 hours later seemed to be retracting the claim and retreating into ‘damage control’. That may be because the assassination of Professor Rabbani will not go down well with non-Pashtun as well as anti-Taliban Pashtun elements. Rabbani was chosen by President Karzai for the task of making peace as the most credible, acceptable peacemaker. If the Taliban are averse to making peace with such a respected figure, the prospects for negotiations with the Taliban could well prove dead in the water. That would strengthen the sceptics in the Northern Alliance leadership, who have always looked at the peace project askance. What may follow therefore could be an intensified and even more bitter inter-ethnic and intra-Pashtun civil war in the backdrop of the US/Nato forces’ plans for incremental withdrawal. Whether the intensifying attacks of the Taliban, especially on the relatively secure capital, prove a factor in a change in the withdrawal strategy is too early to say. But the prospects of renewed and even bloodier conflict in Afghanistan cannot but bode ill for that country and the region.
While Pakistan’s president and prime minister, US President Obama and Afghan President Karzai all roundly condemned the assassination, ritual vows of continuing the search for peace were heard all round. One of the possible fallouts of the event may well be increased pressure on Pakistan to deny the Haqqani network (and perhaps even Mullah Omar’s Quetta Shura) safe havens on Pakistani soil from which to conduct attacks on US/Nato/Afghan forces. The Haqqani network in particular has been the stuff of high level exchanges in recent days between American and Pakistani officials from COAS Kayani-Mullen to Foreign Minister Khar-Clinton, with Panetta sniping away from the sidelines. Suspicions will inevitably arise that Rabbani’s removal may have the blessings of the ISI, of late fuming at being bypassed by the direct US-Taliban contacts as well as the Afghan government-Taliban ‘negotiations’. That suspicion, proved or not, will be sufficient to ratchet up the pressure on Pakistan to act against the Afghan militants operating from Pakistani soil. The assassination will be read in important capitals and amongst other centres of policy analysis as a possible message by the ISI on the perils of leaving it out in the cold as far as any negotiations with the Taliban are concerned. After all, the ISI stands accused already of sabotaging Mullah Biradar’s (Omar’s number two) secret, independent of the ISI negotiations with the Americans.
It is amazing that the calculations of our military establishment and its intelligence arms seem rigidly stuck in old paradigms, oblivious of the fast changing scenario, not the least of which is the deteriorating relationship with the US. Influential voices in the US are advocating an aid cut-off for the Pakistani military and a concentration on building a healthy prosperous civil society in Pakistan. Whether it comes to that or not, inevitably our proxy war adventurism in Afghanistan is inexorably leading us to international isolation and a pariah status politically, economically, and diplomatically. Is the mystical notion of strategic depth worth this game and its end result?