The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, former President of Afghanistan and the head of the High Peace Council that is leading reconciliation efforts with the Taliban, has underlined that the prospects of peace in that long-suffering land remain remote. The manner of the killing, by a trusted visitor carrying a bomb in his turban, has an eerie resemblance to the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance 10 years ago. Two men posing as television journalists killed the “Lion of Panjshir” two days before al-Qaeda carried out its horrific attacks on the New York Twin Towers. It was clearly a pre-emptive move to neutralise the Northern Alliance and deny the U.S. a strong ally on the ground in the military retaliation that would follow the 9/11 attacks. Rabbani's assassination is the most significant political killing since that of Massoud. With the Taliban and the Pakistan-based Haqqani network emerging as prime suspects, it is a massive setback to the peace process. An ethnic Tajik who headed the fragile and embattled Afghan government between 1992 and 1996, Rabbani was a hated figure for the Taliban. The feeling was mutual, but he had thrown himself into the efforts by the U.S. and President Hamid Karzai to bring the militants to the negotiating table. Only in June, Rabbani declared that the HPC's efforts had led to a breakthrough in contacts with the Haqqani network and the Quetta Shura. Even Mullah Omar, the Taliban supremo, made some interested noises. The 71-year-old Rabbani was also making overtures to Pakistan in an attempt to repair relations that had soured in the 1990s. The assassination revives doubts about the assumption that some Taliban are ready to do a deal with Washington.

Rabbani himself was not entirely convinced about the reconciliation project. His participation was most likely driven by fears of being left out of any settlement in a post-U.S. scenario. Both the U.S. and President Karzai saw him as vital to the challenge of bringing non-Pashtun groups on board. This task is bound to get more complicated as non-Pashtuns are now likely to turn suspicious about Taliban intentions. For India, the killing means the loss of an ally. Coming barely a week after the Taliban attack on the U.S. Embassy, this terror strike in an area described as the “Green Zone” of Kabul also nails the U.S. claim, as it withdraws troops from Afghanistan, that western troops have succeeded in weakening the militants. The American envoy in Kabul brushed off last week's attack as mere “harassment,” saying the traffic congestion in the Afghan capital was now the bigger headache. If only that were true.

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