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Targeting Peacemakers in Afghanistan: What’s the Taliban’s Motive?

Afghanistan (photo: United States Marine Corps/flickr)

The New York Times reported today on the killing of Mullah Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban minister and member of the Afghan High Peace Council. Though the Taliban denied involvement, they have allegedly threatened to assassinate members of the Peace Council and have done so in the past.

If the Taliban are behind this killing, their motive may have nothing to do with preventing peace, but rather positioning themselves for it – or at least for the inevitable departure of NATO.

It’s all about internal solidarity. A fractious guerrilla movement isn’t likely to do well in a peace settlement. Their opponents would rather buy them off piece by piece, offering individual militants and commanders a little something – a job, some cash, a position in the army, etc. But, if the guerrillas can negotiate as a solid bloc, then they can demand and are likely to receive more: territorial control, positions in the executive and military, government resources.

When the government is offering benefits for individual defectors, guerrilla leaders may find themselves disadvantaged. Instead of cash and a comfy job, all they can offer is more fighting, hardship, and possibly death.

They can, however, use violence, their specialty, to prevent their foot soldiers from defecting. Rahmani may have thus been a choice target: he was high-profile former militant, living openly in Kabul and working for the Karzai government. Killing him would send a powerful message to mid-level commanders and the rank-and-file. Defect and die. Furthermore, they can have it both ways. If the group denies it publicly, the risks of defection do not get cancelled out. A dead defector is still dead because of his defection.

This is speculation, of course. But, the Taliban have given some indications that they’re concerned about internal solidarity. Late last month the guerrillas rejected an offer to provide safe passage for “reconcilable Taliban” wanting to participate in peace talks, claiming that this was an effort to “create schisms in our ranks.” Additionally, American intelligence agencies have long attempted to create and exploit divisions within the Taliban, so their wariness is not unwarranted.

Then again, there’s the question of which Taliban was behind this. The Haqqani Network, which last year killed Peace Council member Burhanuddin Rabbani, is a likely suspect. And since Haqqani’s crew appears to be the closest to the Pakistani ISI, this latest killing may simply be aimed at ensuring that peace in Afghanistan is made on Pakistan’s terms.

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Philippe Duhart

Philippe Duhart