KABUL (Reuters) – A Taliban suicide bomber yesterday killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, former Afghan president and head of the government’s peace council, a dramatic show of insurgent reach and a heavy blow to hopes of reaching a political end to the war.
The killing was a strong statement of Taliban opposition to peace talks, and as the latest in a string of high-profile assassinations will increase the apprehension of ordinary Afghans about their future as the insurgency gathers pace.
Since Rabbani was a prominent Tajik, his killing is also likely to exacerbate ethnic divides, which in themselves could do more to halt any peace process than the death of a man who while influential, had so far produced limited evidence of concrete steps towards negotiations.
“A Taliban member who went to Rabbani’s house for peace talks detonated a bomb hidden in his turban,” a statement by the Kabul police chief’s office said.
A police source said Masoom Stanekzai, a senior adviser to President Hamid Karzai, was badly injured in the attack.
It was the highest profile assassination in Afghanistan since the younger half-brother of President Hamid Karzai, Ahmad Wali Karzai, was killed at his home in July by a highly trusted family security guard.
It also came just a week after a deadly 20-hour siege by militants in the fortified capital – an attack which underlined how hard it will be for the United States to hand over security to Afghan forces by 2014 so it can bring home its troops.
“The killing of Rabbani is a serious blow against President Karzai and the government’s peace and reconciliations efforts. It also underscores the inability of the government to protect even the most prominent Afghan poli-ticians,” one diplomat said.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said the Taliban claimed responsibility. The central leadership had appointed two “articulate and well-trained” fighters to build contacts with Rabbani.
“Both of them were frequently meeting him at his Kabul home and secured trust of Rabbani and his guards. They were telling Rabbani that they would soon bring senior Taliban leadership to the negotiating table with him,” Mujahid told Reuters by phone from an undisclosed location.
The Taliban frequently exaggerate battlefield exploits, but Mujahid’s statements seemed to broadly match other accounts of the assassination. Mujahid said the group had made similar plans for assassinating “more such people” in the near future.
US President Barack Obama called the killing of Rabbani, head of Afghanis-tan’s High Peace Council, a tragic loss but said work needed to continue to bring elements of Afghan society together to end years of violence.
The United States had said it was open to talks with the Taliban as a way of helping to reach a political settlement to the war. But preliminary contacts had yielded little and already diminishing hopes of these making any progress appear to have been dashed by Rabbani’s assassination.
Commander of the Inter-national Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, General John R. Allen, called the killing “another outrageous indicator that, regardless of what Taliban leadership outside the country say, they do not want peace, but rather war”.
President Karzai, at the start of talks with Obama on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, said Rabbani’s death “will not deter us” from continuing the quest for peace.
Karzai, meeting Obama for the first time since the US president announced a troop drawdown plan earlier this year, planned to cut short his New York visit to return home.