Any Hope left for Reconciliation?

Commentary | September 28, 2011

In Kabul on September 27, protesters shouted “Death to terrorists” and “Death to Pakistan.”  The spark for their anger: the recent assassination of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had led the efforts of President Hamid Karzai’s government to broker a reconciliation deal with the Taliban.  His quest ended when a purported envoy from the Taliban turned out to be a suicide bomber, with a bomb hidden in his turban.  In the aftermath of the killing that shocked their war-weary country, many Afghans were writing off the peace process as no longer viable. Others argued that the assassination only added urgency to the task of embarking on a genuine peace process, even if the challenge appeared more daunting more than ever.

Rabbani was a controversial choice to head the High Peace Council, which was charged with seeking to negotiate with the Taliban. As president of the country from 1992 to 1996 and briefly again in 2001, he had been a fierce opponent of the Taliban.  However, he proved skillful in managing a broad range of contacts and reaching out to regional and ethnic leaders. Since he was a Tajik, his appointment was particularly symbolic and tricky because he had to deal with the Pahtun-dominated Taliban.  So, too, is the aftermath of his assassination since it has only exacerbated ethnic divisions and convinced many Tajiks, in particular, that there is no point in seeking reconciliation with the Taliban. The opponents of reconciliation are convinced that the Taliban has no interest in genuine power-sharing once most of NATO’s troops withdraw by 2014.

If the peace talks are to have a chance, the Taliban and Pakistan will need to make a clear commitment to participate in them. But so far, the Taliban have not even taken an official position on Rabbani’s assassination. They did deny a media report that they had claimed responsibility for the killing, but have remained studiously vague on whether this was indeed their handiwork. Prior to the assassination, the Taliban launched attacks on NATO headquarters and the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and they have continued to target top Afghan officials.

The insurgents may believe that their campaign against other Afghan officials is actually strengthening their hand in negotiations, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar offered a conciliatory statement in his August 28 statement in his Eid-ul-Fitr (end of Ramadan) message , when he called on all ethnic groups to participate in any future settlement. But by any measure, the Rabbani assassination undercut the Taliban’s credibility with most Afghans.

Some officials maintain that the Taliban may be genuinely split on some of these issues, and that more militant factions like the Haqqani network are the most probable culprits in the bloodiest attacks. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee recently: “The Haqqani network acts as a virtual arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.”  This has prompted angry recriminations from Pakistan and a growing rift in the Washington-Islamabad relationship. 

The reality of the peace process so far is that contacts with the insurgents a have flowed through a variety of channels, not always through the High Peace Council. The U.S. has led much of this effort, but Rabbani’s assassination will only add to Afghan concerns about protecting their interests in any possible deal. One possible next step: with the backing of Washington, a team of Afghan and international representatives would head to direct talks with the Taliban in Pakistan. In such talks, the divisions within the Taliban would have to be dealt with, as well as the tensions between the U.S., Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But whatever efforts are made now to keep the peace process alive, many Afghans have already decided that it has lost its legitimacy. For them, the Rabbani assassination was a clear signal that the Taliban wants to seize power again instead of sharing it in any way. All of which suggests that even if the West manages to broker a deal with the Taliban for a political settlement, it needs to win the backing of the Afghan people. That is difficult to imagine —unless the Afghan people can help determine its terms so that their growing misgivings can be allayed.