By Rahimullah Yusufzai
October 06, 2011
In an emotional response to the assassination of the High Council for Peace chairman Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani in a suicide bombing in Kabul on September 20, President Hamid Karzai suspended attempts to negotiate with the Taliban after terming such an effort futile. Instead, he said Afghanistan should focus on talking with Pakistan, implying that Islamabad controlled the Mullah Muhammad Omar-led Taliban movement.
The statement was made after a commission led by Afghan Defence Minister General Abdur Rahim Wardak concluded that the attack was planned in Quetta and that the suicide bomber, Ismatullah, was a Pakistani from the border town of Chaman. Afghanistan’s Interior Minister General Bismillah Mohammadi went a step further and insisted that the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Rabbani.
The allegations embittered the already strained relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though the two governments are still talking to each other and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s recent visit to Kabul to offer condolences to the Afghan government and Rabbani’s family is a case in point, it seems that in formal meetings between the two sides there would be little else to talk except trading accusations.
As if to show further anger towards Pakistan, Karzai went ahead with his scheduled two-day visit to India. On October 4, Afghanistan and India signed strategic partnership agreements to deepen their already close relationship. Islamabad would be keenly watching the outcome of the visit as it has been wary of India’s growing influence in Afghanistan and its fallout in Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Fata. Any agreement between Kabul and New Delhi involving security issues would certainly raise alarm in Islamabad and generate concern regarding Afghanistan’s intentions.
Afghanistan has been careful not to antagonise Pakistan while dealing with India. But the situation could change and it may start playing one against the other to achieve maximum gains. India has gone out of the way to provide Afghanistan with development assistance worth $2 billion to become the fifth biggest donor to the war-ravaged country.
Pakistan due to its economic woes has managed to spare $330 million only to assist Afghanistan. It is uncharacteristic of India to be so generous to another country and one major reason could be its bid to gain influence in Afghanistan and outdo Pakistan.
India’s gains in Afghanistan have at times come at Pakistan’s expense as it has been losing influence amid a rise in anti-Pakistan sentiment, particularly among the non-Pashtuns. Following Rabbani’s assassination and due to claims by the Afghan government that the ISI was involved in his death, protests against Pakistan were staged in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan, mostly in the north and largely by Tajik followers of the late Prof Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Masood.
Afghanistan can certainly play India against Pakistan if it so wanted. In the past, it skillfully adopted neutrality by becoming a member of the Non-Aligned Movement and managing to receive assistance from both the Soviet Union and the US. Afghanistan under Karzai is firmly in the US camp, but in South Asia it is required to do a difficult balancing act while managing its relations with Pakistan and India.
Concerning the 71-year old Rabbani’s tragic assassination, the Afghan government seems to have jumped to conclusions too soon. The involvement of militants linked to Al-Qaeda, rogue elements within the Taliban and intelligence agencies other than the ISI should also be investigated.
The important point is to understand that who would gain the most from Rabbani’s killing, which could sharpen Afghanistan’s ethnic fault lines, create bitterness between Kabul and Islamabad and widen the gulf between the Afghan government and Taliban and destroy any chances of a peaceful end to the Afghan conflict.
The investigation commission’s findings mirrored those of the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), which soon after the incident started blaming the so-called Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban for Rabbani’s assassination and insisted that the plot was conceived in Pakistan.
Its investigations were based on the statement of Hameedullah Akhund, an Afghan national who had promised to arrange contacts between the Taliban and Rabbani’s High Council for Peace. His confessional statement is the only evidence that the Afghan government has handed over to the Pakistani embassy in Kabul. Some cell phones were also delivered at the embassy as claimed by the Afghan intelligence, but Pakistan’s foreign ministry in its press release made no mention of it. Hameedullah reportedly sent Ismatullah, the suicide bomber, to deliver a taped message from some Taliban official to Rabbani. The bomber instead carried a bomb in his turban and exploded it while embracing Rabbani.
Unimaginable security lapses enabled the suicide bomber to gain access to Rabbani. If these are the kind of security standards maintained by the Afghan government, one could hardly attach any hopes to it of handling the security transition from Nato to the Afghan security forces even by the 2014 deadline. On paper though, security in seven cities and provinces including Kabul was handed over this summer by the Nato to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the Afghan National Police (ANP), but the foreign forces are on standby and have been pressed into service after every Taliban attack. Even in Nato’s presence the security situation was deteriorating and one can imagine what could happen once the 150,000 better-equipped and trained western forces are gradually pulled out beginning with the 10,000 US troops by the end of 2011.
In the case of Rabbani’s assassination, the suicide bomber was put up at a guesthouse in Kabul for four days as he waited for Rabbani to return from a visit to Iran. Nobody could anticipate that he would be carrying a bomb in his turban, but this should have been anticipated by an alert security detail after a recent bombing in Kandahar when the city’s Mayor Ghulam Haider Haideri was killed by a turbaned Taliban bomber employing the same tactic.
The bomber wasn’t vetted or body-searched as he was taken to meet Rabbani in the Wazir Akbar Khan locality, presumably the most secure place in Kabul as it houses diplomatic missions, international organisations, ministers and the rich. It is another story that this neighbourhood has been repeatedly attacked, the latest being the 20-hour assault a week before Rabbani’s killing when six Taliban fighters on a suicide mission occupied an under-construction 14-storey building and fired with RPG-7 rockets and light weapons at the nearby US embassy, the Nato headquarters and the NDS offices.
More importantly, the Afghan government officials in their desperation to reach out to the Taliban have been fooled and cheated more than once, but they refuse to learn from past mistakes. The so-called “shopkeeper from Quetta” had early this year made a fool of not only Afghan authorities but also the British and Nato officials. This imposter too was treated as an honoured guest, flown in helicopters, paid unspecified amounts of money and allowed to meet Karzai and Nato officials, after posing as the Taliban commander Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, now the deputy leader of Taliban. The Taliban or whoever was the mastermind for organising Rabbani’s killing played the same trick and managed to kill Rabbani. In fact, the plan was to gain access to Karzai, but he was wise enough to refer him to his top peace negotiator, Rabbani, instead of personally meeting the fake Taliban emissary.
It is true that Karzai’s peace initiative was going nowhere and calling if off is understandable if the Taliban were behind Rabbani’s killing. Taliban too had shown no interest in talking to Karzai as they considered him powerless in the face of the US. But a way out has to be found as the military option hasn’t worked for 10 years and talking to Pakistan for ending the Afghan conflict won’t achieve much. The Afghans using traditional jirgas need to talk to each other and this includes Karzai, the components of the erstwhile Northern Alliance, the Taliban, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar and others. Outsiders should help the Afghans to reconcile with each other even if the prospects at this stage are not so bright.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar.
Source: The News, Peshawar