The suicide bomber who killed Afghanistan’s top peace envoy this week was sent by someone in the Taliban’s Pakistan-based leadership, said the Afghan official who arranged the bomber’s visit to Kabul.
The killing Sept. 20 of Burhanuddin Rabbani, chairman of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council, came after secret contacts between the council and the Quetta Shura, the main leadership committee of the Taliban, said Rahmatullah Wahidyar, the council member who instigated talks. Afghanistan’s intelligence agency spokesman, Shafiqullah Tahiri, told a news conference with Wahidyar that “the Quetta Shura is involved in this killing,” and that investigations were continuing into who else might have participated.
While other Afghan officials said it’s unclear who sent the assassin, evidence pointing to the Taliban’s inner circle will further complicate a peace process the U.S. needs to ease its planned withdrawal of major combat forces by 2014. “If it is proved that the Quetta Shura is behind this attack, it will mean that they want to kill peace negotiators and there is no chance for talks,” said Arsala Rahmani, a senior peace council member.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker told reporters in Kabul yesterday that “the brutal murder of a national statesman who sought to promote outreach in the interest of bringing peace to his country raises very serious questions as to whether the Taliban and those who support them have any real interest in reconciliation.”
U.S., Pakistan Channels
While the exact makeup of the Quetta Shura, or council, is not known, it operates under the authority of the Taliban supreme leader, Mullah Omar, U.S. and Afghan officials say. When U.S. forces led the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001, Omar and other top Taliban officials fled their base in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar to Quetta in Pakistan, where they have been based for years, say officials including U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers.
Pakistan denies that the Taliban leadership operates from its soil.
The U.S., Pakistani and Afghan governments are competing to establish channels for talks with the Taliban, each hoping to shape any eventual negotiations in its own interest, said Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. The U.S. and Afghan efforts to engage Taliban leaders led officials last year to fly a man they thought was an Omar deputy to Kabul for talks only to discover he was an impostor.
Pakistan arrested a Omar lieutenant, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, in 2010 after he had held discussions with mediators from the United Nations, former U.N. envoy to Afghanistan Kai Eide told the BBC. A third conciliation effort, in which U.S. officials met Tayeb Agha, a former assistant to Omar, stalled after news of the contacts was published, the New York Times reported last month.
The Taliban movement’s two regular spokesmen said in phone interviews they are awaiting information from the leadership’s cultural and information committee on whether the group played any role in Rabbani’s killing. Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed, whom Reuters quoted Sept. 20 as saying the Taliban conducted the attack, called that report incorrect.
Wahidyar’s accusing of the Quetta Shura shifted attention from a distinct faction of the Taliban, the Haqqani group based in Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan. U.S. and Afghan officials say that group, backed by Pakistan’s main military intelligence agency, carried out recent high-profile attacks in Kabul, including the Sept. 13 assault that hit the U.S. Embassy with rocket-propelled grenades.
About 30 of the Taliban’s most prominent leaders have served on the shura in recent years, and many of the group’s members may have dispersed to Karachi or other cities to escape possible U.S. attack, according to the Long War Journal, a U.S.- based monitoring group on the Afghan war.
While the Taliban movement includes distinct factions, analysts say it is unclear how unified or divided the leadership may be on talking peace with the U.S. or President Hamid Karzai’s government.
The Quetta Shura is fragmented enough that it “precludes the possibility of the Taliban making a definitive break with the Pakistani military and its other allies,” to negotiate peace, wrote analyst Candace Rondeaux of the International Crisis Group, a policy research organization.
Wahidyar, who was injured in the bombing, had cuts and bruises on his face and spoke in a near whisper to reporters. He said in May he sent a former Taliban commander named Abdul Sattar to the Pakistani border town of Chaman, north of Quetta, to make contact with the Quetta Shura.
Sattar “called me from Chaman and told me that a Mullah Hamidullah would call me and then come from the Quetta Shura to Kabul” for meetings, Wahidyar said. Two rounds of talks with Hamidullah led to the arrival last week of a Mullah Esmatullah, who carried conciliatory audio messages on a flash drive for Rabbani and the peace council that he said were from the Quetta Shura, Wahidyar said.
Karzai said yesterday he heard one of the messages, which seemed authentic, greeting Rabbani and his colleagues with respectful titles. “We came to see that this was not a peace message but was deception,” Karzai told a news conference.
On Sept. 20, when Wahidyar escorted Esmatullah to meet Rabbani, guards deferentially avoided a scrupulous body search of the visitor, and as he hugged Rabbani in greeting, he detonated a bomb hidden in his turban, police said.