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Kabul's New Peace Negotiator Causes Stir

Salahuddin Rabbani has expressed his readiness to ensure "security and stability" in Afghanistan by establishing peace.
Ever since the September assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president and leader of the Afghan High Peace Council, the presidentially appointed body tasked with negotiating with the Taliban had been looking for the perfect replacement.

The thinking was that it should be someone with the savvy to navigate contentious discussions among divergent parties -- insurgent groups, the Afghan government, and the United States. It should be someone with clout -- a political heavyweight, perhaps, who could restart long-stalled negotiations. Most importantly, it should be someone capable of breathing new life into the moribund council.

Ending months of political wrangling, the 70-member council has finally named its man -- and the appointment instantly raised questions.

How could Rabbani's 40-year-old son, Salahuddin Rabbani, hope to succeed where his high-profile father had failed? Was this relatively untested diplomat the one to make good on the Afghan government's goal of finding a political solution to its decade-long war with the Taliban?

Up To The Task

For his part, Rabbani, who is giving up his post as ambassador to Turkey to take the new position, says he is up to the task. In a statement released by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's office, Rabbani expressed his readiness to ensure "security and stability" in Afghanistan by establishing peace. He also pledged that any negotiations would be Afghan-led.

He has his supporters, most obviously those members of the High Peace Council who elected him in a secret ballot.

Mawlawi Kalamuddin, a member of the High Peace Council and a former Taliban minister, lists Rabbani's youth among his strengths.

"Salahuddin Rabbani was not involved in the wars. He is someone new and untainted," Kalamuddin says. "He has been elected to this post, on merit, by his peers. We have to all work together and back him in order to save the country."

Some, like Wahid Muzhda, a political analyst and former Taliban spokesman, say it is only natural for the younger Rabbani to pick up the mantle from his father, who was killed in September by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban.

Muzhda credits Rabbani's appointment to tradition and the influence of his father's supporters, many of them former Northern Alliance fighters who are now government ministers and provincial chiefs.

"He was elected because of who his father was," Muzhda says. "Even though the country is embracing a new political system, many important decisions are unfortunately still decided according to Afghan traditions. That means that a son will take the place of his father."

Political Concession

But like many observers, Muzhda views the choice of Rabbani as a concession. Rabbani’s appointment, he says, is an effort to placate members of the former Northern Alliance who have grown increasingly wary of the High Peace Council's negotiations with Hizb-e-Islami, a militant political group that operates in eastern Afghanistan from its base in Pakistan's northwestern Waziristan region.

Supporters of Burhanuddin Rabbani hold a portrait of him as they stand outside his house in tribute after he was assassinated in September in Kabul.
Supporters of Burhanuddin Rabbani hold a portrait of him as they stand outside his house in tribute after he was assassinated in September in Kabul.
"They needed to appoint someone in order for the talks to continue. Karzai had no better option than Salahuddin Rabbani," Muzhda says. "If he hadn't elected him, he would have faced further pressure [from former Northern Alliance leaders]. He elected [Rabbani] to end [the standoff]."

Hizb-e-Islami, one of the key militant factions fighting Afghan and foreign troops, is headed by notorious warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Afghan prime minister and onetime U.S. ally who is blacklisted as a terrorist by Washington.

The High Peace Council opened formal negotiations with Hizb-e-Islami in 2010, with talks centering on the reintegration of the militant group into mainstream politics.

Muzhda is not alone in seeing political maneuvering by Karzai -- who has no political party of his own or any ethnic or regional powerbase in the country -- as he plays the former Northern Alliance and Hizb-e-Islami against each other in order to strengthen his own position.

Doomed To Failure

Wadir Safi, a political science professor at Kabul University, says Rabbani’s appointment will likely have little effect on the ongoing peace process and even suggests that the process was doomed to failure. Many members of the High Peace Council, he says, vehemently oppose the return of the Taliban to Afghan life and politics.
"The intention of the Peace Council and its president is that they are not interested in solving the Afghan question with the Taliban."
Wadir Safi, Kabul University

"The High Peace Council has [failed] due to its composition and the way the government has established it," Safi says. "The members are not impartial, so they are unable to see from above and to talk to all parties."

Safi adds that many members of the High Peace Council have made their opposition to the Taliban publicly known, which in turn has contributed to the council's ineffectiveness in peace talks.

"The intention of the Peace Council and its president is that they are not interested in solving the Afghan question with the Taliban," Safi says. "They explicitly expressed their views and said that the Taliban are criminals and we don't want to talk to them anymore."

If the intention in choosing a new head of the High Peace Council head was to reverse that course, then it would seem that Rabbani's lineage would be problematic. His father, after all, was once a leader of the anti-Taliban coalition, leading to suggestions that Rabbani would face huge difficulties succeeding with insurgents at the negotiating table.

Adding to the council's difficulties are a host of new hurdles.

The appointment of Kabul's chief peace negotiator comes after the Taliban suspended talks with the United States, just months after the insurgent group announced it was opening a political office in the Gulf state of Qatar in order to conduct negotiations there.

Those talks were soon derailed, however, by a series of controversial incidents involving foreign forces, including a shooting rampage by a suspected U.S. soldier in which 17 Afghan civilians were killed and the burning of copies of the Koran by U.S. troops at an army base in Afghanistan.

The prospect of peace talks was further dented this week after dozens of militants conducted seemingly coordinated attacks in Kabul and three other Afghan cities on April 15 -- reflecting the militants' ability to enter and carry out assaults even in the heavily fortified capital.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.