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Taliban flex muscles with Afghan assassination

Stringer/Afghanistan / Reuters

Afghanistan's former president Burhanuddin Rabbani smiles during an interview with Reuters in Kabul in this November 1, 2004 file photograph.

By Jim Maceda, NBC News Correspondent

LONDON – The killing of 71-year-old Burhanuddin Rabbani on Tuesday resonates deeply among generations of Afghans.

Rabbani was a household word years before many ever heard of Hamid Karzai. A former president of Afghanistan, Rabbani took power right after the fall of the Afghan Communist regime, in 1992. It was his refusal to compromise with the other mujahedeen factions seeking to form a new government that triggered Afghanistan’s bloody civil war. At least 50,000 Afghan civilians died in that war.

One need go no further west in Kabul than to the zoo to see the lingering signs of that war – where opposing militias battled, literally, across streets, pummeling each other with rockets and heavy machine guns, turning whole neighborhoods into ruins of mud and brick.

So it seemed ironic to me and many that this once belligerent man, so intimately connected with Afghanistan’s wars, would be named, a year ago, to head President Hamid Karzai’s High Peace Council, a  panel charged with bringing the Taliban, effectively, in from the cold.

Rabbani hoped to win over the Taliban foot soldiers with promises of amnesty and jobs if they surrendered their weapons and supported the constitution. He made some inroads with a few Taliban mid-echelon leaders. There were recurring rumors of “talks about talks” with the so-called “Quetta Shura” – the highest council for the Taliban’s top commander, Mullah Mohammed Omar, in exile in Pakistan. But the Peace Council accomplished little.

And now it’s emerged, mostly from unofficial tweets inside Kabul, that Rabbani himself may have died at the hands of a Taliban suicide bomber who greeted the elder statesman in his own home, pretending to seek reconciliation – with a bomb hidden in his turban.

If true, this would be at least the fourth “turban bombing” this summer, all targeting Afghan government officials, and taking clever advantage of the one piece of male dress that’s too religiously sensitive to be checked by Afghan security.

Symbolic victory
The Taliban lost no time claiming responsibility for Tuesday’s bombing. Directly targeting the pro-government, larger-than-life Rabbani would not only be a huge symbolic victory. Rabbani also had a real job, and a mission – to make peace with the Taliban. His assassination was the Taliban’s counter-offer.

And it won’t be lost on Afghans. Once again, a deadly attack – four of Rabbani’s bodyguards were killed and another Peace Council official seriously injured – occurred in Kabul’s “Green Zone,”  a high-end, diplomatic enclave surrounded by Afghan police checkpoints. The zone has become a virtual magnet for Taliban attacks this summer: There have been four major incidents in or near this area since June. During a 20-hour siege last week, several rockets hit the U.S. Embassy grounds.

Tuesday’s suicide attack may just reinforce what many Afghans have already concluded – that the Taliban can strike at will, no matter where, no matter how safe it might appear. The U.S. Embassy may have escaped  incoming rocket fire this time, but its staff had to carry out a “duck and cover” lock-down, just the same.

Meanwhile, a world away,  Karzai met quickly Tuesday at the U.N. with President Barack Obama. The he cut his trip short to return, crestfallen, to Kabul. A city whose security he proudly boasts now rests in the hands of Afghan forces themselves. Karzai spoke firmly in New York, saying Rabbani’s tragic death wouldn’t deter him from the path of reconciliation.

But what we’re seeing emerge in Kabul is the build-up of the Taliban’s asymmetric “summer offensive.” It is no longer being fought in their traditional strongholds, many of which are now held by U.S. and coalition forces, but in the leafy streets and expensive homes of the Green Zone.

The tactic is as simple as it is brutal – destabilize the government, one frightful assassination at a time – while the U.S. “occupiers” huddle in their embassy, waiting for the “all clear” sign.  

Jim Maceda is an NBC News Correspondent based in London, who has covered Afghanistan since the 1980’s.

Related links: Ex-Afghanistan president slain in his Kabul home

Photo blog: In Rabbani's footsteps: Afghanistan's tangled political history