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What Rabbani's death means for Afghanistan and the war

RUSI Analysis, 21 Sep 2011 By Shashank Joshi, Senior Research Fellow

Burhanuddin Rabbani has been killed. The first post-Soviet Afghan president was controversial throughout the last twenty years. His death is the latest in a series of setbacks that could pave the way to a deeper civil war.

By Shashank Joshi, Associate Fellow, RUSI

 Burhanuddin Rabbani

In 1996, the Taliban swept Burhanuddin Rabbani, then president of Afghanistan, out of Kabul. Five years after that, the Northern Alliance swept back into Kabul under the protection of the US Air Force, and restored Rabbani for just over a month, before Hamid Karzai took over. A decade later, in late September 2011, the Taliban exacted their second revenge, and killed Rabbani in a suicide bombing reminiscent of the assassination of that other acclaimed leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud.

A blow to the peace process?

Though Rabbani was loved by few, his death is a troubling omen for a fragile Afghan government that, like many of its predecessors in recent history, is buffeted from all sides. Michael Semple, formerly a EU envoy to Afghanistan, called Rabbani's killing 'one of the biggest blows to the peace process so far'. This may be correct, but not for the obvious reasons.

Rabbani was one of the most important Pakistan-backed warlords in the anti-Soviet resistance. After assuming the presidency in 1992, he stood at the centre of a brutal civil war that was to tear apart Kabul and in which his forces were implicated in various atrocities - by the end of 1993, about 10,000 Afghan civilians died.[1] Rabbani's appointment last year as chairman of the High Peace Council (HPC) was therefore anomalous, but hardly surprising in light of the ingrained culture of impunity for those on the anti-Taliban side.

Earlier this year, a study by the Peace Research Institute in (Oslo) and the United States Institute of Peace (in Washington) found a widespread perception in Afghanistan that the HPC 'is not suited to mediate an intra-Afghan process, nor is it likely to be empowered as a government delegation'.[2] Matthieu Aikins, writing in The Guardian, noted that 'it is likely that Rabbani saw the council, which helps administer a $200m trust fund for reintegration, primarily as a patronage mechanism and a way to enhance his clout and resources after spending a decade outside of government'.[3] Rabbani's death is not going to derail a mature peace process, because no such process exists.

A new Afghan civil war

Instead, the deeper significance of this murder may lie in the effect it has upon broader political alignments in Afghanistan. From 1996, the Taliban's principal adversary was the Northern Alliance, a multi-ethnic array of fighters led by the Panjshir-based Tajik warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud. Those forces dominated the post-2001 government of Afghanistan and later formed a political party, the United National Front (Afghanistan), led by Rabbani.

They have enjoyed access to highly lucrative patronage networks over the past decade. For this and other reasons, they fear that US withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 will shift the balance of power toward the Taliban and its backers in Islamabad. They have, therefore, fiercely opposed a political settlement.[4] The hard-line former spy chief Amurallah Saleh, sacked by President Karzai to ease negotiations, exemplifies this hostility.

The danger now is that Rabbani's death provokes or hastens a long-rumoured rearming of the erstwhile Northern Alliance. India, along with Russia and Iran, backed the alliance, comprised mainly of non-Pashtun groups, in the 1990s.[5] Delhi has been increasingly concerned by the prospect of a Pakistan-dominated peace process that would endanger India's political and physical capital in the country, as well as creating welcoming space for anti-Indian militants. According to one account Lashkar-e-Taiba, responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks, 'are everywhere in Kunar and Nuristan. They've practically taken over the insurgency'.[6]

After a decade in proximity to a state through which billions of dollars in foreign funding has been channelled, the Northern Alliance could have the wherewithal to mount a major armed campaign. The likelihood of civil war in has been rising for years, but it may have leapt upward significantly this week. The US could extend its presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014 and dampen some of these dynamics, but without fundamental political changes this could not be a durable solution.

The road to reconciliation

Is there a way out of this?

The central problem is that no party to this conflict has shown sincerity or seriousness in negotiating a political solution. Pakistan, which has long backed the Taliban and affiliated insurgent groups, insists upon controlling any peace process so as to secure its vaguely defined but expansive interests. Its sponsorship of the Haqqani Network, a Pakistan-based insurgent group with the greatest operational reach into Kabul, is an obvious sticking point.

Whereas the Taliban have spent the last three years distancing themselves from al-Qaida,[7] even if the extent of that split is contested, the Haqqanis are a different proposition. As one authoritative report puts it, 'the Haqqani network has been more important to the development and sustainment of al-Qaida and the global jihad than any other single actor or group'.[8] Christina Lamb, of The Sunday Times, reported a US official's view, so far unsubstantiated, that 'Rabbani's killing ... have [the] ISI's fingerprints all over them'.[9] Contrary to their repeated claims, the military establishment in Pakistan does not support a reconciliation process worthy of the name.

But the Afghan government has also proved utterly feckless. The appointment of tarnished warlords like Rabbani, and venal cronies like the recently assassinated Ahmed Wali Karzai, hardly demonstrated a commitment to national unity.[10] The Karzai administration, erratic and apprehensive, has sought to derail those processes outside of its control. Three years ago, Hamid Karzai ordered the expulsion of two British officials who met with a senior Taliban commander.[11] In August 2011, his government deliberately leaked details of a US meeting with a Taliban emissary, Tayyab Aga, thus destroying that channel's usefulness.[12]

On the American side, the first talks took place outside Munich in November 2010, followed by rounds in Doha (February 2011) and Munich again (May 2011).[13] These discussions have led to a better understanding of a range of possible confidence building measures, such as the US facilitating a Taliban representative office outside the country.

But there are two problems. First, this political strategy is undercut by American military strategy. A focus on counterterrorism, rather than counterinsurgency (as was in fashion in 2009), is justified as enabling negotiation from a position of strength. But over the past three years, the policy of killing mid-level Taliban leaders 'appears only to have fragmented the Taliban and made local units more autonomous [such] that new commanders tend to be more radical, less prone to compromise, and more committed to jihad against the foreign occupation'.[14] A large increase in so-called 'night raids' by NATO has also provoked a severe backlash, and in some cases compromised talks with Taliban leaders.[15]

This hints at a second problem, which is that each side appears to hold out hopes of absolute military victory, and therefore holds back from making the compromises that would be necessary to lubricate a process of mutual compromise. Neither the Taliban's murder of Rabbani, if they were indeed responsible, nor the Haqqani Network's increasingly bold raids inside Kabul suggest organisations on the ropes, desperate to negotiate. And yet, NATO officials paint exactly this picture. The US Ambassador in Kabul, Ryan Crocker, dismissed the latest complex attack, in early September 2011, as mere 'harassment'.[16]

This stance, part self-delusion and part propaganda, contributes to a broader failure on the part of NATO member-states, the US and Britain in particular, to explain to their electorates that the Taliban, whom for years have been portrayed as synonymous with global terrorism, are in fact unavoidable interlocutors if a civil war is to be avoided after Western disengagement. As in other conflicts, the moralisation of war, part of its justification on humanitarian grounds, makes compromise much harder. Compromise might have been rendered unnecessary if the Afghan government was a viable partner and the Afghan National Army (ANA) on track to take over security - but this is not the situation today. Indeed, 'there is a real danger that the ANA may fracture along ethnic lines and around particular commanders when the foreigners leave' rather than defend a democratic government.[17]

Rabbani was not a pivotal figure in Afghanistan, but he was an icon of the Northern Alliance. With his death, the balance of power in Afghanistan, though basically unchanged, looks more precarious. The military position of insurgents is improving, over a year after President Obama ramped up US commitment to the war. As more and more anti-Taliban factions recognise this, and see that the US cannot turn the tide, they will take their own precautionary steps. These steps, in the absence of a political process, will not pacify Afghanistan but simply add another layer of complexity to its conflict. That would not benefit anyone but those commanders who exploit the opportunity to build up their powerbases, just as Rabbani himself did in the early 1990s. In short, the prognosis for Afghanistan is looking bleaker by the week.



[1] Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan's Legacy of Impunity (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2005),

[2] Hamish Nixon, Achieving Durable Peace in Afghanistan: Afghan Perspectives on a Peace Process (Oslo: Peace Research Institute (PRIO), 2011), 8.

[3] Matthieu Aikins, 'Profile: Burhanuddin Rabbani,' The Guardian, September 20, 2011,

[4] Sanjeev Miglani and Hamid Shalizi, 'In Afghanistan's Panjshir, disquiet over Taliban reconciliation,' Reuters, September 8, 2011,

[5] Shashank Joshi, 'India's Af-Pak Strategy,' RUSI Journal 155, No. 1 (February 2010): 20-29.

[6] Joshua Foust, 'To LeT or not to LeT, That Is the Question,', June 20, 2011,

[7] Alex Strick Van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, Separating the Taliban from al-Qaeda: The Core of Success in Afghanistan (New York University: Center on International Cooperation, February 2011), 7.

[8] Don Rassler and Vahid Brown, The Haqqani Nexus and the Evolution of al-Qa'ida (New York: Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, July 13, 2011), 5.

[9] Christina Lamb, on Twitter, September 21, 2011,!/christinalamb/status/116153584181198848.

[10] Dexter Filkins, 'Inside Corrupt-istan, a Loss of Faith in Leaders,' The New York Times, September 4, 2010.

[11] Dean Nelson, 'Expelled British envoys tried to turn Taliban chief,' The Times (London, January 6, 2008).

[12] Dean Nelson, 'Secret peace talks between US and Taliban collapse over leaks,' The Telegraph (London, August 10, 2011),

[13] Ahmed Rashid, 'The truth behind America's Taliban talks,' The Financial Times (London, June 29, 2011),

[14] Minna Jarvenpaa, Making Peace in Afghanistan: The Missing Political Strategy, Special Report, Anticipating  a Political Process in Afghanistan: How Should the International  Community Respond? (Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace (USIP), February 2011), 3,

[15] The Cost of Kill/Capture: Impact of the Night Raid Surge on Afghan Civilians, Regional Policy Initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan (Kabul, Afghanistan: Open Society Foundations and The Liaison Office, September 19, 2011).

[16] Jeremy Kelly, 'No big deal? US ambassador's baffling response to Afghan assault,' The Guardian, September 14, 2011,

[17] Vanda Felbab-Brown, Afghanistan Ten Years after 9/11: Counterterrorism Accomplishments while a Civil War Is Lurking? (Washington D.C.: Brookings Institute, n.d.),

Further Analysis: Afghanistan, Central and South Asia

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