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Blow to Afghan Peace Talks?

Author: Jayshree Bajoria
September 21, 2011

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The September 20 assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani (NYT), a former Afghan president and chief government negotiator with the Taliban, could derail hoped-for talks toward a political settlement to end the Afghan war. Rabbani, head of Afghan High Peace Council, was killed in his home by an assassin posing as a Taliban messenger. Reuters reports that a Taliban spokesman claimed responsibility for the attack, but on Twitter, another Taliban spokesman denied it. Others suspect the Haqqani network (ABC), a Pakistan-based Taliban faction blamed for the September 13 attack on the U.S. embassy in Kabul.

The United States and NATO have set a 2014 timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan and have stressed an Afghan-led process of reconciliation with the Taliban as the best prospect for peace. Meetings in November in Istanbul and in December in Bonn are expected to focus on a regional solution to Afghanistan, including a political settlement with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Washington's blessing for a new Taliban political office in Qatar is seen as a move in this direction.

But Rabbani's killings may stoke conditions for a civil war (NewYorker). Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik and a former warlord from northern Afghanistan who fought the Taliban, was seen by many as an unlikely candidate for negotiating peace with insurgent groups. But he brought legitimacy to the process due to his Islamic credentials, and his appointment was intended to reassure non-Pashtuns opposed to any peace deal, especially groups like the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Rabbani's death has galvanized (WSJ) critics of the peace process, including former spy chief Amrullah Saleh. "The danger now is that Rabbani's death provokes or hastens a long-rumoured rearming of the erstwhile Northern Alliance," writes Shashank Joshi, an associate fellow at the independent Royal United Services Institute.

Rabbani's death has also further fueled an ongoing debate about the value of negotiations with the Taliban. Recent leaks from the Afghan government (AP) that Washington was in direct talks with a confidante of Mullah Omar, the Pakistan-based head of the Afghan Taliban, damaged those talks. And if the Taliban claim of responsibility for Rabbani's killing holds up, "it sends a powerful message that they are not interested in talking," argues Kate Clark of the Afghan Analysts Network.

But James Dobbins of RAND argues Rabbani's assassination is a validation of the peace process, suggesting "that some elements within the insurgency greatly fear this initiative, both because it has great public appeal throughout Afghanistan and because other elements of the insurgency have been seriously considering engaging in such a process." Mullah Omar has recently expressed willingness to negotiate with the United States, and there have been reports that the Haqqani network would support (Telegraph) such talks. Still, some experts remain skeptical about any negotiations with the Haqqanis, who have ties to al-Qaeda.

Regardless of whether Rabbani's killer was Pakistan-based or not, ending Pakistan's support for militant groups that target international troops in Afghanistan is seen by the United States as central to any future stability in Afghanistan. The United States has sharpened its warning to Pakistan to cut ties with the Haqqani network (WashPost), explicitly making a direct link between the Pakistani government and the insurgent group. Pakistan denies any links to the group. George Perkovich of Carnegie Endowment recommends Washington stop its monetary aid to the Pakistani military, and instead foster economic development in the country through trade.

Any stable future for Afghanistan will require intra-Afghan reconciliation that allows for broad participation by different ethnic groups, tribes, and Afghans at all levels. Expert Hamish Nixon notes "the poor quality and predatory behavior of the Afghan government" is an important driver of the conflict (PDF) and feeds into ethnic divisions the Taliban exploits, exacerbating the potential for ethnic conflict. Analysts recommend structural changes such as decentralization of power, a federal form of government, and the allowance of political parties. "The opening up of the political field in advance of 2014 offers the best possibility of creating a more stable and legitimate Afghan government," writes Shanthie Mariet D'Souza at the Institute of South Asian Studies.

Background Materials

A Profile of Burhanuddin Rabbani, Guardian

Forgetting Afghanistan's Women, Foreign Policy.com

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