It is hard to find an act more symbolic than the slaying of a man whose job it was to make peace. So it was with the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president of Afghanistan, a former leader of both the anti-Soviet mujahideen and the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, a leader of the Tajiks, and lately head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. Apparently, Rabbani received a Taliban envoy or a former Taliban member in his home, and as a sign of trust, his bodyguards did not search the man, who then proceeded to repay Rabbani’s hospitality by blowing up his turban and killing himself and his host.
For those who may have had high and exaggerated expectations for talks with the Taliban, this is an unfortunate reminder that the “peace process” in Afghanistan is about as promising as the one in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. At least for the time being. The difference is that in Afghanistan, unlike in Israel and the Palestinian territories, it is possible to imagine conditions that could lead to fruitful negotiations before long. That would be the imminent defeat of the Taliban—something that is within the power of international forces and their Afghan allies to bring about. Israel could also defeat Fatah, Hamas, etc., but refuses to do so because it doesn’t want to re-occupy Palestinian territory—not an issue in Afghanistan where it’s simply a matter of extending the authority of the lawfully constituted Afghan government.
But for that to be possible, NATO forces and Afghan security forces must inflict more defeats on the Taliban (and also improve the level of governance delivered by the national and provincial governments). So far, international forces have dealt the Taliban a significant setback in Helmand and Kandahar provinces but have not managed to extend those gains to other areas, such as Regional Command-East. President Obama’s premature decision to withdraw 30,000 surge troops—along with his apparent decision to cut funding for the Afghan Security Forces in half during the next three years–will make that job harder and give the Taliban a fresh lease on life. That makes the prospect of successful peace talks—or even the prospect of significant defections from the Taliban—more remote. Indeed, Rabbani’s killing suggests, more eloquently than any words, the Taliban are not serious about negotiations at the moment. Nor will they be unless conditions change on the ground.