Afghan assassination casts more gloom over peace efforts

KABUL, Afghanistan — A brazen daytime assassination on Sunday offered a grim reminder of stymied progress in a key part of NATO’s effort to wind down the Afghan war: peace talks with the Taliban.

Arsala Rahmani, a senior member of the Afghan government body set up to conduct negotiations with the militant group, was shot and killed while traveling by car through the Afghan capital, police said. Coming less than nine months after the assassination of the head of the High Peace Council, the killing cast yet more gloom over Western-backed efforts to bring the insurgents to the bargaining table.

The Obama administration had hoped to have substantive progress on the negotiating front to cite when a NATO summit convenes next week in Chicago. Instead, preliminary contacts appear to have broken down.

Rahmani, who was traveling without a bodyguard, was gunned down en route to a work-related meeting, said Hashmat Stanikzai, a spokesman for the Kabul police chief. No one else was injured, and the assailant or assailants escaped.

As a former member of the Taliban, Rahmani had possessed both unique influence with the insurgents and understanding of their views.

The Taliban issued an unusually quick denial of responsibility for the killing, even though the group had previously said members of the High Peace Council would be targeted in its spring offensive. “We deny any kind of involvement,” said spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, contacted by telephone.

The U.S. Embassy, the NATO force and the United Nations mission all condemned Rahmani’s killing, as did Afghan President Hamid Karzai. NATO’s International Security Assistance Force praised Rahmani, a onetime deputy minister in the Taliban government, for “turning his back on an insurgent movement that continues to be wholly detrimental to the future of Afghanistan.”

The High Peace Council was created by Karzai in 2010 to try to inaugurate talks with the Taliban. But the efforts have foundered, particularly in the wake of the killing in September of the council’s head, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani.

Hopes of launching peace talks with the Taliban were high at the beginning of the year, when the group declared its willingness to open a liaison office in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar to facilitate contacts with the United States. But in March the Taliban leadership said it was cutting off contacts, citing what it said was bad faith on the side of the U.S.

The breakdown apparently centered on a prisoner exchange meant to build confidence on both sides. The family of the only known American soldier held captive by the Taliban, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, complained publicly this month that not enough was being done to secure his freedom. The Taliban leadership, for its part, accused the Americans of failing to follow through on the proposed handing over of several senior insurgents held at Guantanamo Bay.

Although efforts to start negotiations with the Taliban have failed to gain traction, the Karzai government announced Sunday that it was moving ahead with another prelude to the withdrawal of NATO’s combat force: plans for Afghan security forces to formally assume responsibility for safeguarding more areas of the country. With the designating of the latest areas, about three-quarters of the Afghan population now lives in areas where the Afghan police and army are to have primary responsibility for confronting insurgents.

Previously, the NATO force had intended to leave the most dangerous regions till the end of the “transition” process, but areas handed over include many where the Taliban and other insurgent groups remain active. The thinking is that the Afghan forces will have to prove their mettle, but will also have Western troops available to back them up if they find themselves in over their heads.

Most North Atlantic Treaty Organization combat forces are to leave in 2014.

Fighting has been ratcheting upward in recent weeks with the arrival of warmer weather. The NATO force said Sunday that two Western service members had been killed in fighting in eastern Afghanistan, but provided no details.

The NATO force also said Sunday that it would not be making any further public comment on the deaths of two British troops killed a day earlier in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan. Western military officials said at the time that the two were shot to death by what were believed to be insurgents disguised as Afghan police officers. But a spokesman for the Helmand provincial government, Daoud Ahmadi, said Sunday that authorities had ascertained the two were Afghan police.

Such “insider” shootings — attacks carried out by members of the Afghan police or army — have been blamed for about 14% of the deaths of Western service members this year.

Special correspondent Aimal Yaqubi contributed to this report.