Kabul Afghanistan – An assassin with explosives hidden in his turban was ushered into the home of the head of Afghanistan’s peace process on Tuesday, embraced him and then exploded the bomb, killing him and dealing a potentially devastating blow to the effort to reconcile with the Taliban and end 10 years of war.
The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the leader of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and a former president, on the heels of a carefully planned attack on the American Embassy a week ago, underscored the fierce opposition of those who want to shatter the country’s tenuous stability and thwart its tentative steps toward peace.
It also demonstrated once again the ability of the government’s enemies to reach into even the most secure bastions of the capital, whether through treachery or frontal assaults, and to carry out a rising number of carefully selected assassinations. This one, however, may be the most significant of the war.
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Without the 71-year-old Mr. Rabbani, it will be exceedingly difficult to move the peace process forward. A complex figure, he was nonetheless one of the few with the stature to persuade the Taliban’s enemies, the former Northern Alliance, to embark on reconciliation discussions.
Western diplomats said that recently Mr. Rabbani had begun discussions with some Taliban members who might have the power to engage in real negotiations. A number of previous contacts had proved to be with impostors or figures who had little authority.
The attack wounded four others, including Masoom Stanekzai, the head of the peace council’s secretariat, who has also been vital to advancing the talks, according to Afghan security officials. “Whoever did this decided they wanted to disrupt those talks,” a Western diplomat said.
Within hours of the killing, Northern Alliance leaders, most of whom are ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras, as well as some prominent Pashtun figures, were on television, denouncing the peace process and saying that the Taliban could not be trusted. The Taliban are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former presidential candidate and Northern Alliance leader, summed up the sentiments heard from many Northern Alliance figures in the wake of the assassination: “This is a lesson for all of us that we shouldn’t fool ourselves that this group, who has carried out so many crimes against the people of Afghanistan, are willing to make peace.”
Dr. Abdullah added: “We have to be realistic about what we are up against. We are up against people who don’t believe in any humanity. They assassinate people on the streets of Kabul, they assassinate those trying to achieve peace.” Last spring the Taliban had proclaimed that they would kill members of the High Peace Council.
“No one took it seriously and they should have and it is also time for President Karzai to wake up,” he said. “These are the people who he calls his ‘dear brothers,’ they are behind what happened.” He referred to President Hamid Karzai’s predilection for calling the insurgents “dear brothers” or “upset brothers.”
Mr. Karzai, who had planned a week of meetings in the United States and was at the United Nations when the attack occurred, cut short his trip and was on his way back to Afghanistan by Tuesday evening, after discussions with President Obama.
Calling Mr. Rabbani “an Afghan patriot who sacrificed his life,” Mr. Karzai pledged to continue to seek a peaceful way to end the fighting. “This will not deter us from continuing down the path we have started,” he said.
Mr. Obama called the assassination “a tragic loss.”
Western countries, including the United States, have made contacts with Taliban and former Taliban, hoping to jump-start the process. However, Western officials have emphasized that without strong Afghan involvement it will not be meaningful, because it is the Afghans who will have to trust each other enough to decide how to share power over the long term. That possibility seemed increasingly remote late Tuesday.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but several groups could have been involved, including the Taliban; the Haqqani Network, a terrorist organization based in Pakistan’s tribal areas and with affiliations to the country’s intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence; and even elements of Al Qaeda, given the method and precise and long-term planning involved in the assassination.
The attack, less than half a mile from the American Embassy, occurred in Mr. Rabbani’s home, indicating that he felt confident the meeting would be safe. Dr. Abdullah and other members of the High Peace Council said the bomber, whose name was Esmatullah, had been staying at a guest house in Kabul and had been in contact with the council over the past five months.
He had been in contact with the council through Rahmatullah Wahidyar, a peace council member who was a Taliban deputy minister for refugees and martyrs when the group ruled the country. Mr. Wahidyar, who has been living in Kabul for several years, was removed during the summer from the list of people facing United Nations sanctions. He served as a chairman of the High Peace Council’s detainee release committee, which worked to get people freed from prison, according to diplomats.
On Tuesday, Esmatullah called Mr. Wahidyar and said that he “he had a very serious message and a very important and positive message from the Quetta Shura” to give Mr. Rabbani, Dr. Abdullah said. The Quetta Shura is the Taliban leadership group.
Mr. Rabbani had just returned from a trip to Iran at around 4:30 p.m. and as soon as he was briefed by Mr. Stanekzai, the peace council official, with whom he worked closely, and by Mr. Wahidyar, the man named Esmatullah arrived.
Moments later, Mr. Rabbani was dead. Mr. Stanekzai was seriously wounded and Mr. Wahidyar was also wounded. Early Wednesday he was being questioned by Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, but several people said it was unlikely that he had prior knowledge of the attack.
With a political career that spanned more than 40 years Mr. Rabbani, a native of the northern province of Badakhshan, came to symbolize the country with its strengths and weaknesses. He fought the Soviets in the 1980s and was a founder of Jamiat-e-Islami, a political party initially composed mainly of Tajiks.
Later, he served as a rather weak president from 1992 to 1996, when he was unable to abate the wrenching civil war that tore the country apart and paved the way for the Taliban takeover. When the Taliban were pushed out in 2001, he again moved into the political spotlight.
His death generated a sense of profound loss, not only among the northerners who knew him and fought the Russians with him, but also in the Pashtun south. For despite Pashtun doubts about whether Mr. Rabbani could be trusted, and suspicions that he was merely looking to burnish his legacy, his sincerity in his work over the past year had impressed people.
The 70-member High Peace Council, which had representatives of every stripe, had a nucleus of people who were working hard to reach out to senior Taliban commanders in Pakistan and also to persuade low-level Taliban fighters to join the government. Mr. Rabbani had traveled all over the country, setting up reconciliation councils in every province, and had gone to neighboring countries to push the project forward, impressing people with his dedication.
In Kandahar, people were aghast when the news broke of his death. A shopkeeper, Mohammed Raza, was glued to his radio, shaking his head in resignation and sadness.
“Afghanistan won’t be rebuilt,” he said. “Some elements don’t let people work in Afghanistan for peace. I am very sad. He was an elderly white-bearded man, respected by all Afghans, and he was working for peace. He paid attention to the south and was trying to end this ongoing riddle in Afghanistan, but the enemy of peace and of Afghanistan has killed him.”
Reporting was contributed by Sangar Rahimi, Sharifullah Sahak, Abdul Waheed Wafa and Jack Healy from Kabul, and Taimoor Shah from Kandahar, Afghanistan.