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Afghan Assassination Threatens Peace Talks, Pakistan Relations

Afghanistan High Peace Council Chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani
Burhanuddin Rabbani, chairman of Afghanistan's High Peace Council. Photographer: Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, chairman of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, dealt a blow to the government’s negotiations with the Taliban and fraying relations between the U.S. and Pakistan.

Rabbani, a former Afghan national leader, was killed and his deputy wounded as “they met two men who said they had come from Quetta, Pakistan, with a peace message from the Taliban,” said council member Habibullah Fawzi. Kabul police spokesman Hashmatullah Stanekzai said the men hid at least one bomb in their turbans, which guards failed to search when the men entered the home.

Two U.S. intelligence officials said the Islamic militant Haqqani group, which U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Ambassador to Pakistan Cameron Munter and other officials have said has links to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency, was the leading suspect behind the attack.

Another U.S. official cautioned that so far there is no hard evidence linking the Haqqani group, and that others allied with the Taliban might be responsible.

“Of course it was Haqqani,” said Christine Fair, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington and an expert on Pakistan.

The two intelligence officials, who like the third official spoke on the condition of anonymity because intelligence matters are classified, said yesterday that the attack on Rabbani appears to fit a pattern.

Embassy Attack

Most recent was last week’s attack on the U.S. Embassy, in the same Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood of walled villas and armed guards where Rabbani lived. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker has said the Haqqani network was responsible for the embassy attack, which killed more than 15 Afghan civilians and police.

Rabbani’s killing will further complicate efforts by President Hamid Karzai’s government, the U.S. and Pakistan to start a peace process with the Taliban, said Waheed Mujda, a political analyst at the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies who formerly was a Taliban official. The three governments are competing to shape such talks and any deal that might emerge, Waliullah Rahmani, director of the research group, said in an interview last week.

Karzai, who appointed Rabbani and the 70-member peace council, canceled plans to address this week’s UN General Assembly session in New York to fly back to Kabul, said his spokesman, Hamed Elmi. All those interviewed spoke by phone.

International Condemnation

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. will “support the Afghan government as they pursue the ones responsible for this cowardly attack and bring them to justice.”

Pakistan’s foreign ministry issued a condemnation by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani.

Karzai appointed Rabbani and the peace council 11 months ago, including former Taliban officials among its members.

Rabbani was an ethnic Tajik from northeastern Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s archenemy India historically has had its closest relations in Afghanistan with Rabbani’s and other ethnic and political groups in the north.

Rabbani was making little progress, in part because he was an old enemy of the Taliban, who are from the rival Pashtun ethnic group, based in the south and east, and was unable to win their trust, said Mujda, who served in the former Taliban government as a foreign ministry official.

No Cooperation

The Taliban also “did not respect or accept the High Peace Council because they saw it as dependent on the Afghan government and the U.S.” Mujda said.

While the council made informal contacts with members of the Taliban, it hadn’t won cooperation from the guerrilla movement’s leadership, council members such as former Taliban diplomat Abdulhakim Mujahid have told reporters.

Rabbani’s assassination now poses two problems for the U.S., said Georgetown’s Fair and Frank J. Cillufo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington.

First, said Cillufo, peace negotiations are critical to the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan. “I don’t see how we can successfully wind down our presence in Afghanistan without being able to point to a credible peace initiative,” he said.

In addition, said Cillufo and Fair, Pakistan’s unwillingness to combat the Haqqani network, which is based on its soil, reveals the bankruptcy of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship.

‘Litmus Test’

“The litmus test for Pakistan is whether they are willing to sever their ties with proxy groups such as Haqqani,” said Cillufo in a telephone interview. “The U.S. and its coalition partners’ patience is wearing thin.”

“There’s really no alliance there,” said Fair, also in a telephone interview. “Our allies are their enemies, and their enemies are our allies. As we go into the endgame in Afghanistan, it’s becoming increasingly clear that our interests are different. The only good thing about that is that as it becomes clear that our military and intelligence relationship is going to pot, it may force us to focus more energy on the civilian side of the relationship.”

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