Ten Years Gone: The Unraveling of Afghanistan

From the Rabbani assassination to the Afghanistan-India pact, how the past two weeks undermined a decade of war.

The war in Afghanistan began ten years ago, but it has been transformed in the last two weeks. Hopes of a peaceful reconciliation among Afghans have been brutally dashed, and the enduring rivalry between India and Pakistan has been imported into the conflict like never before. A complex conflict is now even more complicated. In October 2001, President Bush fired the first shots of the Afghan war against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Afghanistan after first trying for weeks to persuade Taliban leader Mullah Omar to hand over Osama bin Laden and his gang to face justice for the attacks of 9/11. His predecessor, President Clinton, had sent Ambassador Bill Richardson and myself to Kabul in 1998 with the same message—hand over bin Laden. The Taliban leader refused thirty requests to hand over al-Qaeda between 1998 and 2001. For the last two years, the current Afghan government—led by President Karzai and backed by the United States and NATO—has urged the Taliban to enter into peace talks and a reconciliation process to end the war. Many, including myself, doubted this would work but agreed it was worth a shot. Better to try and fail than not to try.

Mullah Omar sent his answer late last month. A Pakistani pretending to carry a message of peace from Omar and his Quetta Shura council asked for a meeting with Karzai's chief negotiator, former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, in Kabul. But he had no olive branch—only a bomb in his turban. He murdered Rabbani. The Afghan intelligence service believes he was sent to kill by Mullah Omar and the Taliban. They are almost certainly right. Karzai has all but said Pakistan probably encouraged the attack. He is probably right about this too. After ten plus years, Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership have not changed. They are not peacemakers. They are not ready to abandon al-Qaeda. They publicly mourned bin Laden's death last May and hailed him as a hero. There is not likely to be a negotiated settlement with Omar and the Taliban.

Karzai then went on a long-planned trip to New Delhi and signed a strategic partnership pact with Prime Minister Singh. India will now begin training Afghan troops. Its already large economic-assistance program in Afghanistan will grow larger. Karzai and Singh say Pakistan is not the animus of their pact; no Pakistani general believes that. Karzai had little choice. His Afghan support base is furious with Pakistan over Rabbani's murder. He needs to get tough on Pakistan. The rivalry between India and Pakistan has always been part of the Afghan tapestry, but now it is much more front and center. Combined with the shattering end of hopes for a peace process, Afghanistan is now a surrogate battlefield for a sixty-four-year-old regional conflict. The Taliban has only itself and its Pakistan ally to blame.