The morning after a suicide bomber killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former Afghan president and head of the High Peace Council, mourners gathered at his home to pay their final respects.
By all outward appearances, it seemed a calm and peaceful remembrance ceremony. But beneath the surface, the assassination has sparked potentially explosive tensions throughout Afghanistan.
Afghan politics has always been dominated by ethnic divisions. But in recent months, friction has been mounting. A number of Afghans have expressed concerns that civil war may erupt once the US and NATO forces withdraw – and that Mr. Rabbani’s killing comes as an attempt to preemptively eliminate leaders who could oppose the Taliban. Still, many observers and analysts say that it is too early to anticipate a civil war.
“Ethnic tensions in Afghanistan are a reality. Politics remains very ethnically polarized, and when you have an assassination of someone like Rabbani it’s definitely going to exacerbate ethnic tensions,” says Bahar Jalali, chair of the political science department at the American University of Afghanistan. “Whether that’s going to eventually escalate into something, perhaps not a civil war, but the further inflammation of already existing ethnic tensions, that’s definitely going to take shape and it’s going to further polarize politics.”
As an ethnic Tajik and a prominent member of the Northern Alliance, Rabbani had difficulty gaining widespread support among the predominantly Pashtun south during his 1992-96 presidency. For much of his time in office, he was more president in name than in practice, as the Taliban controlled large swaths of the country.
Following the US-led invasion in 2001, Rabbani never officially occupied any major positions of power, but he did maintain influence with President Hamid Karzai. At the time of his death, Rabbani headed the High Peace Council that was tasked with negotiating with the Pashtun-dominated Taliban. But after a year of work, Rabbani and the other members of the council had attained no significant results.
Like many other members of the High Peace Council, Rabbani was an enemy of the Taliban and he also stood accused of numerous war crimes, leading many to question his ability to forge any lasting peace deals.
There are conflicting reports about whether the Taliban have taken responsibility for Rabbani’s murder, and it remains unclear who is responsible for his death.
Worries in the north
In the north of Afghanistan, where Rabbani enjoyed the most support, many worry that the Taliban were involved and may have killed him to eliminate leaders who could oppose them after US and NATO forces leave Afghanistan.
“Some people think the Taliban will come back if America leaves Afghanistan,” says Abdul Matin Sarfraz, a local journalist in Kunduz Province. “They now want to kill the leaders of [former Northern Alliance] to make it easier for them to come to the north of Afghanistan.”
Although the Taliban managed to take over the majority of Afghanistan during their rule, they faced the fiercest resistance in the north.
Among many of the nation’s non-Pashtun ethnic groups, Rabbani was a key figure who helped hold together the different groups in the north.
“The assassination of President Rabbani creates another problem in the north, because Rabbani was a unifying figure in the north,” says Haroon Mir, director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies and a former aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated just prior to Sept. 11. “Now the competition is wide open and it will further fragment the Afghan society, and it will certainly create more resentment from people in the north.”