September 24, 2011

Rabbani Assassination: An Assertive Taliban and America’s Dilemmas

Ashok K. Behuria

September 22, 2011

Burhanuddin Rabbani’s assassination proves the pessimists right. The process of reconciliation is dead. The story of his death is as gory as it is familiar. The immediate sequence of events leading to his assassination is somewhat like this.

On September 16, before leaving for Tehran to attend the Islamic awakening conference organised by Iran, Rabbani meets the media in Kabul. As the head of the Afghan high peace council, he looks sad, flustered and dismayed. He declares that the Taliban movement has become “a disaster for the Muslims of Afghanistan” and goes on to say that they are “not on right path...they are a conspiracy against Islam”, because they are killing Muslims in the name of Islam, recruiting teenagers for suicide bombing and teaching wrong things in their madrassas. Strong words indeed.

Rabbani does not stop there. In Tehran, he starts from where he left off in Kabul. In his address, he laments that some extremist suicide groups in Afghanistan regard the killing of Muslims in the name of Islam as legitimate, and urges the gathering of about 700 Islamic scholars that the time has come to take a strong stance against such groups.

Perhaps this was enough for him to cross the Taliban redline. He receives a call from his office in Kabul that the Taliban have sent their trusted emissary to talk to him and he has to come back. He is told that a senior former Taliban leader, Rehmatullah Wahidyar, who had reconciled in 2005 and joined him in his high peace council, had arranged the meeting.

Rabbani thinks his reprimand has worked, cuts short his visit to Dubai and rushes back home. Wahidyar and his trusted lieutenant Muhammad Masom Stanikzai escort two Taliban emissaries to his house. One of them, hiding an explosive under his turban, moves forward to hug him and detonates the explosive.

Exactly ten years ago another prominent Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Masoud, was killed in similar circumstances. The moral of the story is that the Taliban have no mercy for any peace maker. They would go to any extent to eliminate their detractors.

Rabbani’s was the fifth high profile assassination since the killing of Gen. Khan Muhammad Mujahid, the police chief of Kandahar, in April 2011. This was followed by the killing of Gen. Daud Daud, a top police commander, in May. Subsequently, Karzai’s half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai and former governor of Uruzgan province, Jan Muhamamd, were assassinated in July. Days before Rabbani’s death, six suicide attackers targeted the US Embassy in a highly fortified neighbourhood; it required the deployment of the Afghan and NATO air force to take them out. All these are undeniable proof of the Taliban’s confidence in recent months. Why would they negotiate when they are winning the battle of nerves in Afghanistan?

It was pure common sense to argue until sometime ago – when the US announced its plan to withdraw against the backdrop of Taliban assertion – that the Taliban would never join the reconciliation process when they were clearly on the driver’s seat. While the determination of the US seemed to be flagging by 2009, the Taliban clearly set their eyes on Kabul. The developments during the last two and half years, ever since Obama declared his intent to pull out of Afghanistan, suggest that the “real Taliban” shall not come to the table in spite of the troops surge and the half-hearted persuasions of their benefactors.

It was also logical to imagine that the patrons of the Taliban (read the Pakistani establishment) would persuade the Taliban to join the process, facilitate the withdrawal of international forces and then help them assume power in Kabul by force or fraud to acquire “strategic depth”. There were hints that some of the Taliban leaders were amenable to the idea.

However, the fact remains that the Taliban has undergone a transformation in the meantime. During their exile they have metamorphosed into a Salafi-al Qaeda outfit. It appears that the mujahideen of the 1980s have been replaced by younger recruits within the Taliban fold; the latter are much more rigid and inflexible. It is unlikely that they would even allow Mullah Omar to reconcile with the Karzai regime.

Some days ago, the Afghan media had reported that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the 38 year old son of Jalaluddin Haqqani and leader of the infamous Haqqani network, had sent a message to Rabbani that he would participate in the reconciliation process only after all foreign forces left Afghanistan. After forcing the US to negotiate with them, the Taliban have now gone one step further – they demand the complete withdrawal of US forces from Afghan soil before any negotiation can start. Thus reconciliation talks are a non-starter.

Some analysts in the US have come up with the argument that with the killing of Osama, the US has won the war on terror. And that therefore it is time for the US to declare ‘mission accomplished’ and pull back from Afghanistan. They are perhaps not aware that they are echoing the Taliban demand.

In the face of dire economic crisis at home, long-term military commitments abroad have become unsustainable for the US administration. Therefore, it has to leave. However, it has to find a face saver. Reconciliation with the Taliban would have been a huge relief. The strategists in the US had hoped that the Taliban would oblige and Pakistan would behave. That did not happen.

Perhaps, the US is now looking for yet another face saver. It understands that leaving Afghanistan in a hurry, like it did in the 1990s, could prove disastrous. Therefore, it seeks to maintain its military presence in Afghanistan. It is desperately trying to convince President Karzai to sign a status of forces agreement, like the one it has secured in Iraq, to be able to keep a watch on the developments in Afghanistan post-withdrawal, to ensure that things do not become as bad as they did under the Taliban government. Karzai has so far not obliged the US. He must be aware of his steadily declining position and his limitations. In all probability, he would not sign such an agreement without generating some semblance of a national consensus on the issue.

Even if the US stays on, courtesy a last minute breather from Karzai, it will only maintain a thin military presence that is unlikely to deter Taliban advances. Drones may be an effective short term measure. But things have come to such a pass that taking out one, two or three top leaders will not stem the Taliban tide.

Either way, the American project of a free, democratic liberal Afghanistan is not going to materialise. The new Afghanistan that they had helped establish allegedly with the help of Afghan expatriates may be tottering on its last legs.

A realistic assessment would demand that the US isolates the factor that has breathed life into the Taliban and helped it gather strength. And that is unquestionably the sanctuaries and clandestine support provided to the Taliban — call it Quetta Shura or Haqqani group – by the shadowy operatives of the Pakistani establishment. Despite American pressure and persuasion, Pakistan has not changed its policy of running with the hare and hunting with the hound, with its heart with the hare and head with the hound. It is time the US understands that the war in Afghanistan will have to be fought and won on Pakistani soil.

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