KABUL — A former Taliban leader turned peace negotiator was assassinated Sunday by three unidentified gunmen in a brazen attack in the Afghan capital, hours before leaders here announced the next phase in the country’s security transition.
Arsala Rahmani, 70, was fatally shot while traveling through central Kabul. He was a key member of the High Peace Council, a group responsible for managing the reconciliation process with the insurgency. As a former Taliban deputy minister, he was considered by many to be an important conduit between active militants and the Afghan government. His death, which comes less than a year after the assassination of the council’s leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, is considered a blow to the fledgling peace process.
“It is a big loss for Afghanistan. He was thinking about peace and about key national issues,” said Nisar Hares, a lawmaker and close colleague of Rahmani, who maintained a seat in the senate while simultaneously serving on the High Peace Council.
The council was envisioned as the public face of the Afghan reconciliation process. President Hamid Karzai appointed former Taliban officials such as Rahmani as well as fixtures in the Afghan government such as Rabbani, a former president, in an effort to depict the council as a model of conflict resolution.
The assassination of both men highlights the fierce opposition among some insurgents to a diplomatic solution. Formal peace negotiations with the Taliban stalled this year, and High Peace Council members have attempted to rekindle the reconciliation process without much success. Rahmani’s death is likely to complicate those efforts, just weeks after Rabbani’s son, Salahuddin Rabbani, was named the council’s new leader, promising a fresh start.
Rahmani, a tall, willowy man who often wore wide-rimmed glasses, died from a bullet wound on the way to the hospital, according to Gen. Mohammad Zahir, chief of the criminal branch of the Kabul police.
No one has asserted responsibility for the killing. A Taliban spokesman said the group was not behind it, but last month the Taliban released a statement saying its members planned to target members of the High Peace Council as part of a “spring offensive.”
The U.S. Embassy described the assassination as a tragedy.
A veteran of the war during the occupation of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Rahmani served as a deputy minister for higher and vocational education in the Taliban government.
He was among a small group of former Taliban leaders who decided not to join the insurgency after U.S.-backed forces toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban government in 2001. In recent years, Rahmani had attempted to use his influence and contacts to establish a dialogue between the Taliban leadership and Karzai’s government.
An Islamic scholar, Rahmani was appointed to the peace council when it formed in late 2010. He often spoke to Western scholars and journalists about how to settle the decade-long war and what role the Taliban might play in a coalition government. Recently, he had been particularly involved in encouraging militants to reintegrate, often lobbying on behalf of prisoners who promised they would put down their weapons if released from detention.
“The relatives of Talibs come to me and say, ‘If you release my brother, I will help with the peace process,’ ” Rahmani said in an interview last month.
During that meeting, as if on cue, his phone rang. A man in Khost was pleading for his brother’s release. Rahmani listened patiently and told the man he would try to help. The peace process depends on such good-faith efforts.
But Rahmani had moments of deep skepticism, even as he attempted to advance the reconciliation process.
“They always say they’re innocent,” he said after hanging up the phone. “They’re almost all lying.”
Also Sunday, the Afghan government announced its plans for the third round of the country’s security transition, which will include a number of restive provinces and districts. By the time the phase is complete, 75 percent of the country will be under Afghan control, including all 34 provincial capitals, said Ashraf Ghani, the head of the commission overseeing the transition.
Included in this phase are Kapisa and Uruzgan provinces, both of which contain significant insurgencies, along with 122 of the country’s districts.
“President Karzai’s announcement of the third group of areas to enter transition is a testament to the capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Force who will now be responsible for the security of more than 75 percent of the Afghan population,” Gen. John R. Allen, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
Salahuddin is a special correspondent.