Taliban hardliners seeking to kill off government outreach to local commanders, experts say

Key Afghan peace negotiator Arsalan Rahmani Daulat was shot dead early on Sunday morning, fuelling fears that the country's fledgling efforts to reach a rapprochement with local Taliban commanders may be killed off by hardliners in the organisation's central leadership.

Mr. Rahmani, until last month the acting head of President Hamid Karzai's Higher Peace Council, was killed as he drove to work. The assassins, police say, used a silencer-fitted pistol to fire a single shot to his heart as they drove by. “His nephew, who was also his driver, didn't even realise he had been shot,” Kabul police chief General Ayub Solangi told journalists.

In recent months, Mr. Rahmani was credited with having reached out to key commanders across southern and south-eastern Afghanistan, in an effort to secure a peace deal ahead of the planned withdrawal of the bulk of western troops in the country in 2014. His efforts had incensed the Taliban's leadership, which said it would target Higher Peace Council members during its ongoing summer offensive. The Taliban has, however, denied involvement in the assassination.

Mr. Rahmani's assassination came nine months after the killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the Higher Peace Council and the country's former president.

“Kabul,” says independent analyst Omar Sharifi, “was seeking peace deals with local Taliban leaders, because it realised that reaching out to the central leadership in Pakistan was a waste of effort. First, the Taliban's leadership is too beholden to the Inter-Services Intelligence to make an independent deal, and, second, the leadership is too porous and diffuse to make a deal stick.” The assassination, he claimed, “was an effort to warn off would-be dealmakers.”

Former Indian ambassador to Kabul Vivek Katju said he believed the attack was linked to Pakistan's growing isolation, illustrated by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation's reported decision not to invite it to an upcoming summit on Afghanistan. “For years now, the ISI has made clear it will not tolerate an arrangement in Afghanistan that does not accommodate its perceived interests,” he said. “This assassination is part of that continuum.”

Mr. Rahmani served as the Taliban's Minister for Higher Education from 1998, until the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan collapsed in 2001. Long a figure of local influence in south-eastern Afghanistan's Paktia region, Mr. Rahmani had earlier served in several administrations through the 1990s. Following the events of 9/11, Mr. Rahmani became the subject of United Nations terrorism-related sanctions, and remained under de-facto house arrest.

In 2005, though, President Karzai secured Mr. Rahmani's appointment in the Meshrano Jirga, Afghanistan's upper house of Parliament, hoping to use him as a means to build bridges with elements of the resurgent Taliban insurgency. Mr. Rahmani was re-nominated to the Meshrano Jirga in 2010 and appointed to the 70-member Higher Peace Council, a body the President removed from the sanctions list along with 13 others the following year.

Mr. Rahmani's killing comes against the backdrop of murderous infighting between some Afghanistan-based Taliban commanders, and their Pakistan-based leadership. Earlier this month, the former Ghazni-based Taliban commander, Mullah Ghulam Hassan, issued a public vow of vengeance against the Taliban's overall military chief, Mullah Abdul Qayyum Zakir, as well as four other top leaders, Hafiz Majeed Noorzai, Mullah Salim Hotaki and Kamil Tamim.

In a May 10 videotape, released to the Pashto-language website Taand, Mr. Hassan blamed the group for the torture and execution of his mentor, Maulvi Muhammad Ismail. Mr. Ismail, the former head of the Taliban's Quetta military command, was executed earlier this month after being arrested by the organisation on charges of engaging in secret talks with President Karzai's regime.

In his videotape, however, Mr. Hassan accused top officials linked to Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar of corruption, claiming that over $2 million intended to fund the organisation's new office in Doha had been embezzled. He also alleged that ranking Taliban commander Maulvi Sadiqullah was maintaining secret contacts with the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan.

Evidence exists that these feuds have become increasingly bloody. Last month, the head of the Taliban's parallel administration for Zabul province, Maulvi Sharaf-ud-din, was assassinated along with four others in Quetta's Saro Nasar neighbourhood area — a killing, Afghan intelligence sources told The Hindu, was linked to the ongoing factional power struggle.

However, many in Afghanistan are sceptical that these feuds could have provided a foundation for a durable peace. Husain Yasa, a Kabul-based commentator and analyst, said Dr. Rahmani's killing showed how ill-conceived the peace process was. “This is a monologue, not a dialogue,” he said, “one party wants to talk, and the other wants to kill its way to power.”

New Delhi-based experts also said they expected more targeted killings to follow. “The elimination of middle-ground negotiators,” said Ajai Sahni, director of the New Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, “is a predictable and recurrent feature of all South Asian insurgencies. It takes place because insurgent leaderships know their power stems from violence, and have no interest in letting others ride to positions of power and influence on their backs.”

“The sad fact,” says Dr. Sahni, “is that the most enthusiastic proponents of this peace process have been western European nations with no experience of dealing with domestic insurgencies at home.”

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