Afghanistan's struggle to make peace with the Taliban received a serious blow today when a suicide bomber detonated a bomb hidden in his turban during a meeting with the Afghan officials most critical to reconciliation efforts.
The blast killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, a towering figure who led Afghanistan's High Peace Council and has played a key role in nearly every step of Afghan history for the last 30 years, and severely wounded Masoom Stanakzai, the backbone of President Karzai's strategy in speaking with the Taliban.
The attack seemed designed to decapitate Afghanistan's peace efforts and deliver the message that at least some insurgent groups have no interest in peace. Rabbani's death removes one of the Taliban's oldest enemies and will reinforce the fears of Rabbani's followers that the Taliban can't be trusted.
"This is a big blow to the peace process," former top aide to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Umer Daudzai, said. "It may not recover from this shockwave."
Karzai called Rabbani "an Afghan patriot, who as we see has sacrificed his life for the sake of Afghanistan and for the peace of our country."
Karzai spoke today alongside President Obama, who both said Rabbani's death would not deter the peace process.
The suicide bomber blew up explosives concealed in his turban, the third time in the last three months that insurgents have employed that tactic, according to police officials and an aide to Rabbani. The aide, Karim Aimaq, said the meeting was deemed so important, Stanakzai asked Rabbani to fly back from Iran today to attend.
Stanakzai briefed Rabbani on the individual who wanted to meet with him. Rabbani agreed to the meeting, and the man was driven to Rabbani's house in a car belonging to the High Peace Council. The bomber had convinced Stanakzai that he was interested in talking peace, so he was escorted into the meeting without being searched, Aimaq said.
No group immediately took responsibility for the attack, although the Taliban said in April that they would target members of the High Peace Council. Last month, Rabbani criticized the Taliban for refusing to embrace talks and for killing innocent Afghans.
The government has struggled to bring insurgents to the negotiating table in the last few years, mostly through backchannel negotiations. It was those negotiations that Stanakzai largely led, helping choose which Taliban interlocutors to reach out to.
The U.S. has followed suit, holding a handful of meetings with a man believed to be close to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. But U.S. officials told ABC News their own negotiations are largely dead in the water, and Afghan officials complained they were kept out of the loop.
Afghanistan's history in the last 30 years mirrors Rabbani's own rises and falls: he fought against the Soviets and was the first mujahedeen fighter to enter Kabul, later becoming Afghanistan's president. He was thrown out by the Taliban but survived by taking shelter in a province they did not control and then, after the Taliban were defeated, Rabbani officially handed power over to Hamid Karzai, who later named him to the peace council.
Today's attack mirrors the one that killed several CIA officers in Khost, Afghanistan, along the Pakistani border, last December.
In that attack, an informant who the CIA officers believed could lead them to senior al Qaeda commanders turned out to be a double agent and blew himself up at the beginning of a meeting.