Rising violence threatens Nato's Afghan exit strategy

While Western leaders discuss withdrawal, Kim Sengupta reports in Kabul on the forces determined to shoot down peace

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The Independent Online

The two men both suffered the savage violence visited on many who seek to bring peace to Afghanistan. Salahuddin Rabbani's father was murdered by a suicide bomber in the room where he was now sitting with Massoon Stanekzai, who was severely injured in the blast. Both were recently discovered once again to be targets; another one named on the same death list was killed earlier this week.

"Reconciliation" with the insurgency is a key component of the West's exit strategy from this long, costly and brutal war. But, as the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the Afghan government's negotiating body showed, there are murderous forces who are determined to sabotage any ceasefire. Their interest, it is claimed, is to maintain a state of instability.

The Taliban has denied involvement in the murder of Mr Rabbani, a former President, and the finger of blame is pointed at the ISI. The Pakistani intelligence service has been accused by the Afghans and the West of sponsoring terrorist groups, in particular the Haqqani Network.

Salahuddin Rabbani, who returned from being the Afghan ambassador to Turkey to succeed his father as the head of the High Peace Council, told The Independent, "We know he was martyred by a man who came from Pakistan pretending to represent the Taliban.

"The story that has gone around is that the man had a bomb hidden in his turban. In fact it was hidden in his skull cap – a very small but potent device of the type the security people tell me could only be made by a state intelligence service. There will continue to be threats. I was told a list was found the other day of people they want to eliminate. We have got to be careful. But you cannot live life fearing all the time."

Arsala Rahmani, another prominent member of the Peace Council, was named on the list found by the Afghan intelligence service, the National Directorate of Security. He was shot dead on his way to work in Kabul a few hours before an announcement that more regions across the country were being passed to the control of Hamid Karzai's government because of improvements in the security situation.

Mr Rahmani had served as education minister in Mullah Omar's Taliban administration and was viewed as a credible voice of mediation. Muallawi Shafiullah Nuristani, a fellow Council member, saw the assassination as "a big loss which will definitely have a bad effect on the peace process.

"He was a trusted person among the more reasonable Taliban; they took him seriously because he had been through the same things they had."

The Taliban has threatened to kill members of the Peace Council as part of their spring offensive, but a spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, was adamant that it had played no part in the death of Mr Rahmani.

Agha Jan Motasim, a member of the Taliban's leadership council, the Quetta Shura, said he lamented the passing of Mr Rahmani. "We respected him," he said. "He should not have been killed like that."

But Mr Motasim himself paid a heavy price for advocating talks, cut down by gunfire in the Pakistani city of Karachi last August. Now recovering from surgery in Turkey, he said in an interview: "There are two kinds of Taliban. One type believes that the foreigners want to solve the problem, but there is another group thinking that the foreigners only want to fight. The majority of the Taliban and the Taliban leadership want a broad-based government for all Afghan people and an Islamic system like other Islamic countries."

Mr Motasim blamed the US and UK for failing to strengthen the moderate branch by refusing to accept the Taliban as a legitimate political entity. The result, he maintained, was hardliners became emboldened to make an attempt on his life. "I wanted a broad-based government, all political parties together. Maybe some hardliners among the Taliban in Afghanistan and in Pakistan didn't like to hear this and so they attacked me" he said.

Mr Motasim insisted that the moderate Taliban may still be able to rejoin the peace process if a number of demands are met: the release of all Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo and Bagram; the lifting of UN sanctions on the Taliban leadership and the recognition of the Taliban as a political organisation.

Massoon Stanekzai now has to use a walking stick after his operations. "I am under repair, but it will never the same again" he said. "It was a terrible incident and it was a very difficult personal trauma for me but I am alive. We lost a great Afghan leader in that attack and that is a real tragedy."

Mr Stanekzai disclosed he had recently held talks in Kabul with a delegation from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former mujahedin commander whose fighters later carried out attacks against Western forces in Afghanistan.

However, Mr Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami group has now been involved in dialogue with the Karzai government and has representatives in parliament. But the shooting of Mr Motasim made other members of the Quetta Shura reticent about coming forward and there has been no serious dialogue with the Haqqani Network.

There are said to be faint signs of renewed dialogue in the future. Mr Stanekzai said talks over the release of five Afghan detainees held at Guantanamo Bay in exchange for an American soldier captured by the Taliban, Bowe Bergdahl, may yield wider progress. Negotiations have reached a stalemate with the US reportedly insisting that the detainees must remain under house arrest at a country agreed by Washington. The insurgents have, so far, refused to accept this condition.

Mr Stanekzai said the Peace Council would back the detainees being sent to Afghanistan.

Salahuddin Rabbani maintains that despite the legacy of violence and intimidation, searching for a negotiated end to the war is the only realistic option. "People are tired of violence, tired of deaths. We have a young generation which wants to join the rest of the world. We also have to be practical. The international forces are leaving in a few years. We must use this period constructively. Of course we mourn our losses, but it is because of these sacrifices it is so important that we talk our way to peace."