The “face of peace” was killed in Afghanistan last night, forcing President Karzai to cut short his diplomatic visit to the US and shattering attempts to dialogue with the Taliban. The head of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council and former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was assassinated in his home yesterday by the group he was appointed to appease.

The Taliban, which claimed responsibility, has sent a clear message it will not be negotiated with, less than a week after it held the US Embassy and Kabul’s diplomatic quarter under siege for almost 20 hours.

The assault on the US Embassy did not so much seek to destroy bricks and mortar as it sought to destroy confidence and hope. Last night’s attack was even more symbolic.

The Taliban sent two men — one with a bomb in his turban — to visit Rabbani at his home in the Afghan capital, also located in the diplomatic quarter, opposite the Czech Embassy. Mohammed Massom Stanekzai, head of the Secretariat of the High Peace Council and former Minister for Reintegration (of insurgents), was reported by AFP to have accompanied the two men, who were considered “very trusted”.

A Reuters report quoted Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid saying that the two had built a relationship of trust 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 said.

Stanekzai survived the blast, but was in a critical condition late last night. The bomber’s accomplice also survived, and has been arrested.

Initial reports that another three people were killed in the blast could not be confirmed. AFP reported three people, including Stanekzai, were injured.

“The face of the peace initiative has been attacked,” said General John R Allen, Commander of the International Security Assistance Force, in a statement released by Isaf.

President Karzai, who has already angered key supporters over his attempts at peace talks with the Taliban, is bound to face considerable criticism over the assassination. Indeed, the blame game has already started with one former Afghan intelligence chief telling Al Jazeera the attacks demonstrate the failure of the government to protect its key people.

“These attacks tell us that the policy of appeasement and deal making with the Taliban and Pakistan is not going to lead to peace,” Amrullah Saleh, who also fought against the Taliban under Rabbani, said. “By adapting a vague policy of so called reconciliation, [the government] has created confusion in our society and weakened the government to the extent that they can’t even protect high-profiled leaders in the capital.”

Rabbini was considered a force majeure in Afghan politics even before his appointment to the peace council, largely related to his tenure as president during Afghanistan’s upheaval in the 1990s.

The news of his assassination will trigger mixed reactions, as this analysis by journalist and commentator Anand Gopal points out, but the conclusion will be the same — his death is a death knell for peace.

“For now, the immense divides that plague Afghanistan will be on full display. Among some communities, Rabbani will be hailed as a hero, a wizened Islamic scholar and hero of the war against the Russians. In others, he will be remembered for scores of human rights abuses and widespread devastation during the last civil war. Either way, a peace deal in Afghanistan remains as unlikely as ever,” Gopal said.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey