Afghanistan: Taliban Suicide Bomber Assassinates Top Karzai Ally Burhanuddin Rabbani

He led Kabul’s High Peace Council–and the Taliban wanted him dead. Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau on the gloomy prospects for an end to the Afghan war.

Ahmad Massoud / Xinhua-ZUMA; Dusan Vranic / AP (inset)

Exactly one week after launching a lethal wave of coordinated attacks in Kabul, a Taliban suicide bomber has killed former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani at his heavily guarded home in the capital. The 71-year-old Rabbani, a leader both in the war against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and in the Northern Alliance’s fight against the Taliban regime in the late 1990s, was head of the Kabul government’s High Peace Council, with the task of exploring possible peace negotiations with the Taliban. Now his death only underscores how deeply the insurgents have penetrated into the capital despite the massive presence of both Afghan and coalition security forces.

The loss of the soft-spoken former warlord is a serious blow to President Hamid Karzai, who has depended heavily on the backing of Rabbani and his predominantly ethnic Tajik followers. But more than that, the killing is also a serious setback to Karzai’s hopes of striking a negotiated peace with the insurgents. For one thing, it’s now unmistakably clear that powerful elements of the insurgency are adamantly opposed to any peace talks. But just as important, the Tajik leader’s assassination can only reinforce the reluctance of many non-Pashtun Afghans to place any faith in negotiations with the almost exclusively ethnic Pashtun insurgent movement.

Afghan police sources are still trying to piece together what happened, but they tell The Daily Beast that the suicide bomber, possibly accompanied by another Taliban member, appears to have won an audience with Rabbani by posing as an envoy for the group’s leadership. Police say he passed through Rabbani’s security cordon with an explosive device concealed inside his large, Taliban-style turban. When he was ushered into Rabbani’s presence, they greeted each other and embraced—and the visitor detonated his bomb, killing Rabbani instantly and injuring at least three top aides.

To search an Afghan’s headgear has always been an unthinkable insult. Nevertheless, even Taliban suicide bombers didn’t conceal explosives in their turbans—not until this past summer. In July, however, a Taliban entered a mosque while wearing a turban bomb and killed four mourners at a memorial service for Karzai’s slain half-brother, Ahmed Walid Karzai. Two weeks later the mayor of Kandahar city was assassinated by a suicide bomber with an explosive device in his turban, and a month later another attacker detonated his headwear at an Independence Day ceremony in Helmand, injuring three Afghan National Police.

A senior Taliban intelligence official tells The Daily Beast that Rabbani has been at the top of the group’s death list for years. “His death is good news for the Taliban,” he says. Even so, he says, he was surprised by the operation’s success despite the heavy security around Rabbani. “Getting the bombers inside his house was really an amazing act,” the intelligence official says. He adds that the Taliban have plans to “go after” other senior leaders of the former Northern Alliance, the militia nominally led by Rabbani that captured Kabul from the Taliban in 2001.

The intelligence official says the Taliban’s assassination campaign has already claimed the life of the senior police commander for northern Afghanistan, Gen. Daud Daud, a close Rabbani associate. This May a suicide bomber somehow penetrated heavy security at a meeting of senior officials in the northern city of Taloqan and detonated his vest, killing the general instantly. And earlier this year, the intelligence officer adds, the Taliban narrowly missed killing another Rabbani ally, Interior Minister Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, who remains a top target.

Rabbani had powerful allies—and tough fighters. After the collapse of the Soviets’ puppet regime in 1992, the victorious mujahedin chose Rabbani to be their president. During a vicious civil war among the feuding mujahedin factions, he remained as Afghanistan’s head of state until the Taliban seized the capital in 1996. Then Rabbani and his top general, the legendary Ahmed Shah Masood, retreated to their strongholds in northern Afghanistan, where their forces continued to battle against the Taliban. After the Taliban’s collapse in 2001, Rabbani took a back seat to Karzai, who became president. But Rabbani’s largely Tajik movement remained a formidable political force, and his top aides, including Vice President Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, became extravagantly rich and influential.

Many Afghans could only scratch their heads over Karzai’s choice of Rabbani last October to direct the Peace Council, in light of his long record of enmity with the Taliban. Top Taliban commanders have told The Daily Beast that the only thing they wanted to do with Rabbani was “hang him,” not talk to him. And sure enough, the council seems to have made little headway, either in engaging with the Taliban’s senior ranks or in persuading lower-level insurgents to defect.

Now Rabbani’s death may completely eliminate the possibility of a negotiated settlement. Many of his followers are likely to decide there’s no future in peace talks with the Taliban. Instead they’re apt to set about rearming for an anticipated civil war after U.S. forces withdraw. In the aftermath of Rabbani’s death, it’s hard to imagine how any trust can be created among the feuding Afghans.