Taliban

Former CIA agent Robert Greiner speaks about counterterrorism at Sid Richardson Hall on Wednesday afternoon.
Photo Credit: Mariana Gonzalez | Daily Texan Staff

The United States undermined Afghanistan’s independence by taking the leading role in the fight against the Taliban, according to former CIA agent Robert Grenier.

“After 2005, we as a government made a very serious mistake,” Grenier said. “We decided in effect that Afghanistan was too important to [leave to] the whims of Afghans.”

Grenier spoke at a campus event hosted by the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law and the Clements Center for History, Strategy and Statecraft on Thursday to promote new his book, “88 Days to Kandahar.” 

Grenier served as a senior CIA counterterrorism official until he was dismissed by former CIA director Porter Goss in 2006.   

Overwhelming Afghanistan with U.S. military forces led to unsustainable progress the Afghans could not maintain, Grenier said.

“We completely overwhelmed this very small, very primitive, agrarian country with a tiny GDP and, at best, nascent national institutions,” Grenier said. “We should have known and quickly learned that the successes we had [and] the progress we were able to make was progress that couldn’t be sustained by Afghans over the long term.”

Contingent forces are necessary in Afghanistan to ensure that Afghanistan’s government can transition to peace, Grenier said.

“If the Taliban … control substantial parts of the country, we’re to help the government to sort that out,” Grenier said.

According to Grenier, given the weak leadership from Hamid Karzai, former president of Afghanistan, the country’s fate was entirely determined by the United States and the Taliban.

“He was an admirable fellow in a lot of respects, but also kind of unsteady,” Grenier said. “By the end, it was just hopeless.”

International relations and global studies junior James McNally said strong leadership is needed to guide Afghanistan toward independence.

“Given the tremendous institutional knowledge that we have about Afghanistan, we are in a great position to make positive effects within that area,” McNally said. “It comes to helping the good people and hurting the bad people.”

Plan II and advertising Chandler Michaels sophomore said Grenier’s original plan for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan rightly sought to ensure Afghanistan’s independence.  

“I think it was really interesting that he was the one who formulated that plan,” Michaels said. “The U.S., just as a support system for the Afghan people, is a really important part of the plan of support — without taking over [Afghanistan].”

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KHAR, Pakistan — A 40-year-old Pakistani housewife has made history by becoming the first woman to run for parliament from the country’s deeply conservative tribal region bordering Afghanistan.

Badam Zari is pushing back against patriarchal traditions and braving potential attack by Islamist militants in the hope of forcing the government to focus on helping Pakistani women.

“I want to reach the assembly to become a voice for women, especially those living in the tribal areas,” Zari told The Associated Press in an interview on Monday. “This was a difficult decision, but now I am determined and hopeful society will support me.”

Many of Pakistan’s 180 million citizens hold fairly conservative views on the role of women in society. Those views are even more pronounced in the country’s semiautonomous tribal region, a poor, isolated area in the northwest dominated by Pashtun tribesmen who follow a very conservative brand of Islam.

Most women in the tribal region are uneducated, rarely work outside the home and wear long, flowing clothes that cover most of their skin when they appear in public.

Zari, who finished high school, spoke to reporters at a press conference Monday wearing a colorful shawl wrapped around her body and head, with only her eyes showing.

Life for women in the tribal region has become even more difficult in recent years with the growing presence of Taliban militants who use the border region as their main sanctuary in the country. The militants have been waging a bloody insurgency against the government to impose Islamic law in the country and have a history of using violence to enforce their hard-line views on women.

Last fall, Taliban fighters in the northwest shot 15-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in the head in an unsuccessful attempt to kill her because she resisted the militants’ views and was a strong advocate of girls’ education.

Zari is from Bajur, one of many areas in the tribal region where the Pakistani army has been battling the Taliban. She filed the paperwork necessary to run for office on Sunday. She was accompanied by her husband, who she said fully backed her decision to run for a seat in the National Assembly.

“This is very courageous. This woman has broken the barrier,” said Asad Sarwar, one of the top political officials in Bajur.

“My decision to contest the election will not only give courage to women in general and attract attention to their problems, but also helps negate the wrong impression about our society,” Zari said. “This will reflect a true picture of our society, where women get respect.”

LONDON — In her first video statement since she was nearly killed, a Pakistani schoolgirl shot by the Taliban remained defiant in arguing for girls’ education, saying Monday she would keep up the same campaign that led to her attack.

Speaking clearly but with the left side of her face appearing rigid, 15-year-old Malala Yousufzai said she is “getting better, day by day” after undergoing weeks of treatment at a British hospital.

“I want to serve. I want to serve the people. I want every girl, every child, to be educated. For that reason, we have organized the Malala Fund,” she said in the video, made available by a public relations firm.

A supporter of Pakistani political party Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), center, reacts while she and other women chant prayers in support of 14-year-old schoolgirl Malala Yousufzai

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

ISLAMABAD — Schools shut their doors in protest and Pakistanis across the country held vigils Wednesday to pray for a 14-year-old girl who was shot by a Taliban gunman after daring to advocate education for girls and criticize the militant group.

The shooting of Malala Yousufzai on Tuesday in the town of Mingora in the volatile Swat Valley horrified Pakistanis across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum. Many in the country hoped the attack and the outrage it has sparked will be a turning point in Pakistan’s long-running battle against the Taliban, which still enjoys considerable public support for fighting U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan.

Top U.S. officials condemned the attack and offered to help the girl.

A Taliban gunman walked up to a bus taking children home from school and shot Malala in the head and neck. Another girl on the bus was also wounded. Pictures of the vehicle showed bloodstained seats where the girls were sitting.

Malala appeared to be out of immediate danger after doctors operated on her early Wednesday to remove a bullet lodged in her neck. But she remained in intensive care at a hospital in the northwestern city of Peshawar, and Pakistan’s Interior Minister said the next 48 hours would be crucial.

Small rallies and prayer sessions were held for her in Mingora, the eastern city of Lahore, the southern port city of Karachi and the capital of Islamabad.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton praised the young Pakistani girl.

“She was attacked and shot by extremists who don’t want girls to have an education and don’t want girls to speak for themselves, and don’t want girls to become leaders,” she said.

Malala is admired across Pakistan for exposing the Taliban’s atrocities and advocating girls’ education in the face of religious extremism.

At the age of 11, she began writing a blog under a pseudonym for the BBC about life under the Taliban in the Swat Valley. After the military ousted the militants in 2009, she began publicly speaking out about the need for girls’ education, something the Taliban strongly opposes.

The group claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack and vowed to target her again.

Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik said authorities have identified her attackers and know how they got into the valley, but no arrests have been made.

Printed on Thursday, October 11, 2012 as: Shooting sparks outrage

Smoke billows out from a compound after it was attacked by militants in Kabul, Afghanistan on Wednesday. Taliban insurgents attacked a compound housing foreigners in the Afghan capital Wednesday hours after President Barack Obama made a visit.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s president has branded his U.S. allies as corrupt, wasteful and contemptuous of Afghan lives. Once he even threatened to join the Taliban. Nonetheless, Hamid Karzai signed a deal that could keep thousands of U.S. troops in his country for years.

Despite his rhetoric, Karzai needs international support if Afghanistan is to survive economically and avoid descending into civil war like it did when the Soviets left two decades ago.

The signing of the long-term strategic partnership, which will govern the relationship between the two countries from the end of 2014 until 2024, was welcomed on Wednesday by leading Afghans as a positive message that the West will not turn its back on their country.

It also gives Afghanistan much-needed military support to deal with an insurgency that shows no signs of abating. Less than two hours after President Barack Obama left Afghanistan early Wednesday, the Taliban carried out a brazen suicide attack in the capital against a heavily fortified compound housing hundreds
of foreigners.

“Karzai was thinking that maybe it is good for the national interest of Afghanistan, its stability, peace and security. Without the Americans, peace and stability is difficult,” said Wahid Muzhda, a leading political analyst and ethnic Pashtun.

Even neighboring Pakistan, which has been accused by the U.S. of not doing enough to dismantle insurgent safe havens on its territory, would benefit from a continued American presence in Afghanistan, some analysts say.

Riffat Hussain, a professor of Defense Studies at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, acknowledged that some Pakistani officials, especially in the military, are worried that the U.S.-supported Afghan government is too cozy with Pakistan’s archenemy, India. But he said that many officials are even more concerned about what will happen in Afghanistan if international forces leave.

“Many in Pakistan think continued American military and NATO presence is not necessarily a bad thing because in the absence of their presence, Afghanistan is more likely to descend into chaos,” Hussain said.

The agreement is widely expected to be approved by the 249-member Afghan parliament, possibly as early as next week.

“As long as it is good for the country and good for the Afghan people, we would like to vote in favor of it. We would like to accept that partnership with a very clear stand, a stand which will assure Afghans that Afghanistan will be a prosperous country,” said parliament member Shukria Barekzai, a Pashtun.

The partnership accord has been described as the capstone in a series of agreements that Afghanistan is signing with U.S. allies. A failure to make a deal with the United States would have endangered pacts it has already signed with America’s NATO allies, including Britain.

“The signing of strategic partnerships with European countries and especially the United States is to the benefit of Afghanistan,” said Nazir Ahmad Hanafi, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament and supreme religious council who hails from the western city of Herat.

The deal signed overnight by Obama and Karzai does not commit the United States to any specific troop presence or spending. But it does give the U.S. the option of keeping forces in Afghanistan after combat troops withdraw by 2014 for two specific purposes: training of Afghan forces and operations against al-Qaida. The terror group is present in Pakistan but has only a nominal presence inside Afghanistan.

Officials have previously said as many as 20,000 U.S. special operations forces and other troops may remain after the combat mission ends, but that still must still be negotiated. Those troops would be on the ground for at least another decade.

Andrew Exum, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, said Obama “delivered a strong and necessary message to the Afghans that the United States will remain committed to their security.” But he criticized Obama for implying that the war was winding down.

“I do not think this is the beginning of the end of the war,” Exum said. “I think it is misleading to say we are winding down the war. The war does not stop and start according to our desires, and it will not stop for the Afghans. It will also not stop for the many U.S. special operations forces that will continue to fight by, with, and through the Afghans,” Exum said.

Afghanistan also desperately needs support for its future development and to keep its economy afloat. The World Bank has said the country will require billions of dollars in aid for a decade or more, especially if it hopes to fund services such as security. Last year, Afghanistan received $15.7 billion in aid, representing more than 90 percent of its public spending, according to the World Bank.

The U.S. has spent more than $20 billion in the last two years to build up the Afghan army and police — a key part of its exit strategy in 2014. It hopes to have a 352,000-strong force ready by the end of the year, so it can hand over the lead for security around the country to the Afghans by mid-2013. The U.S. and other allied countries will then move into a support role.

Without the strategic agreement there would have been no legal framework for continued U.S. assistance to Afghanistan. To keep the army and police operating past 2014 will require at least $4.1 billion a year — money that could have vanished if a deal was not signed.

“The commitment from the United States that it will support Afghanistan politically, economically and militarily” is “good for the Afghan people,” said Fazal Sangcharaki, a spokesman for opposition politician Abdullah Abdullah, who lost to Karzai in the 2009 presidential elections.

But despite their welcome, Afghan politicians were critical of the Karzai government for not making the text public before it was signed. They also said that most ordinary Afghans had no clue that Obama and Karzai had signed it, as most were asleep and would have found out only after the U.S. president left following a secretive trip in which he spent less than seven hours on the ground in Afghanistan.

“When he came at midnight, the people of Afghanistan were asleep,” said Nasrullah Sadeqizada, an ethnic Hazara parliamentarian from central Daykundi province. “The U.S. president should come during the day and hold a public celebration. But unfortunately he came at midnight when the people of Afghanistan were asleep and left before they woke up.”

The Taliban interpreted his overnight trip as a sign they are winning.

“He can’t even come here without telling anyone. To me that shows that Barack Obama is afraid of the Taliban movement,” Taliban spokesman Qari Youssef said. “Coming to Afghanistan without telling anyone clearly shows how much they have achieved in the past 10 years.”

Printed on Thursday, May 3, 2012 as: Pact achieved despite Karzai’s rhetoric

Afgan special forces on top of a building previosly occupied by militants in Kabul, Afghanistan on Monday. Insurgents were earlier holed up in the building but were overcome by heavy gunfire.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — For Taliban militants and U.S. strategists alike, all roads in this impoverished country of mountain passes, arid deserts and nearly impassable goat tracks lead to this ancient capital of 3 million people nestled in a high and narrow valley.

The Taliban made their intentions clear over the weekend, mounting spectacular coordinated attacks that spawned an 18-hour battle with Afghan and NATO forces. And now, the U.S. is gearing up for what may be the last major American-run offensive of the war — a bid to secure the approaches to the city.

While bombings and shootings elsewhere in Afghanistan receive relatively little attention, attacks in the capital alarm the general population, undermine the government’s reputation and frighten foreigners into fleeing the country. That’s why insurgents on Sunday struck locations that were so fortified they could cause little or no damage, including the diplomatic quarter, the parliament and a NATO base.

“These are isolated attacks that are done for symbolic purposes, and they have not regained any territory,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said.

The U.S.-led spring offensive, expected to begin in the coming weeks, may be NATO’s last chance to shore up Kabul’s defenses before a significant withdrawal of combat troops limits its options. The focus will be regions that control the main access routes, roads and highways into Kabul from the desert south and the mountainous east. These routes are used not only by militants but by traders carrying goods from Pakistan and Iran.

The strategy involves clearing militants from provinces such as Ghazni, just south of the capital. The pivotal region links Kabul with the Taliban homeland in the south and provinces bordering Pakistan.

NATO, under U.S. command, will also conduct more operations in eastern provinces such as Paktika and Paktia that are considered major infiltration routes to the capital from insurgent safe havens in Pakistan.

Afghan and U.S. officials blamed the Pakistan-based Haqqani network, which is part of the Taliban and has close links with al-Qaida, for the weekend attacks that left 36 insurgents, eight policemen and three civilians dead in Kabul and three eastern provinces. But Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said officials have not concluded whether the attacks emanated out of Pakistan.

Declining numbers of international troops in the coming months are also forcing coalition forces to focus less on remote and thickly populated places such as eastern Nuristan. They hope to move responsibility for those areas to the Afghan security forces.

Coalition forces last summer made gains in traditional Taliban strongholds such as Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the south, areas they must now hold with fewer troops. By September, as many as 10,000 U.S. Marines are scheduled to leave Helmand and hand over the lead for security to Afghan forces in the former Taliban stronghold.

“It’s going to be a very busy summer,” Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and NATO commander, said recently. “The campaign will balance the drawdown of the surged forces with the consolidation of our holdings in the south, continued combat operations” and an effort to push Afghan security forces into the lead.

The U.S. this month finished moving the 1st brigade of the 82nd Airborne into Ghazni to help clear out a Taliban stronghold in Andar district. It could be one of the largest remaining American clearing operations of the war.

It is not known when that operation will take place, but Ghazni is located at a key chokepoint with the country’s main highway from the south to Kabul running through it. The highway runs just past Andar district.

“If you secure Andar, you have secured Ghazni, and you have secured Afghanistan,” the governor of Ghazni, Musa Khan, told U.S. forces last week at a handover ceremony with departing Polish troops.

Eliminating the Ghazni problem is an important part of the plan to transition security responsibility from foreign forces to the nascent Afghan National Security Forces.

After September, the U.S.-led coalition may not have enough troops on the ground for such large-scale operations and will increasingly have to depend on the Afghans to take the lead.

The U.S.-led coalition is keen to show that the 330,000-strong Afghan forces are capable of filling in a vacuum left by the withdrawal of 33,000 U.S. forces by the end of September. It also wants to use them more and more in operations against insurgent forces in key battlegrounds such as the east.

Last week Afghan forces carried out an operation in eastern Nuristan, a Taliban stronghold, with only support from coalition forces.

“This was yet another example of the successful transition we have been seeing throughout the past year, as the ANSF are planning, leading and executing very productive combat operations against the insurgency,” Allen said. “We expect to see more of these types of successful ANSF-led operations as we progress further into the spring and summer,” he added.

Afghan forces are to peak at 352,000 by the end of the year and are expected to take over much of the fighting as the U.S. draws down an additional 23,000 troops to 68,000 by the end of September. U.S. troop levels reached a high of about 100,000 last year.

Estimates of the Taliban fighting force hover around 25,000. The Afghan army and police are now in charge of security for areas home to half the nation’s population, with coalition forces in a support role. The coalition hopes to keep handing over control until Afghan forces are fully in charge by the end of 2013, with all combat troops scheduled to withdraw from the country by the end of 2014.

The U.S. may retain a small number of forces past that date to help train and mentor the Afghan army and help with counterterrorism efforts.

There is very little appetite in Western countries for keeping troops in Afghanistan, but U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said Sunday’s attack shows the danger of withdrawing international forces too quickly.

“There’s a very dangerous enemy out there with capabilities and with safe havens in Pakistan. To get out before the Afghans have a full grip on security, which is a couple of years out, would be to invite the Taliban, Haqqani, and al-Qaida back in and set the stage for another 9/11,” Crocker said.

Published on Tuesday, April 17, 2012 as: US nears final Afghan offesnsive

Taken in 2002, detainees wearing orange jump suits sit in a holding area as military police patrol during in-processing at the temporary detention facility Camp X-Ray on Guantanamo Bay U.S. Naval Base in Cuba. The notorious prison is 10-years-old today.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — U.S. intelligence officials acknowledged Tuesday that the United States may release several Afghan Taliban prisoners from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as an incentive to bring the Taliban to peace talks.

Meanwhile, Afghan officials told The Associated Press that a plan to give Afghanistan a form of legal custody over the men if they are released satisfied their earlier objection to sending the prisoners to a third country.

Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper told Congress Tuesday that no decision had been made on whether to trade the five Taliban prisoners, now held at Guantanamo Bay as part of nascent peace talks with the Taliban. He and CIA Director David Petraeus did not dispute that the Obama administration is considering transferring the five to a third country.

U.S. officials and others had previously spoken only vaguely, and usually anonymously, about the proposal to send the prisoners to Qatar, a Persian Gulf country that has asserted a central role in framing talks that might end the 10-year war in Afghanistan. The lead U.S. negotiator trying to coax the Taliban into talks had also publicly acknowledged the possibility of a release, but said there was no final decision.

The prisoners proposed for transfer include some of the detainees brought to Guantanamo during the initial days and weeks of the U.S. invasion that toppled the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001. At least one has been accused in the massacre of thousands of Shiite Muslims in Afghanistan, according to U.S. and other assessments, but none are accused of directly killing Americans.

“I don’t think anybody harbors any illusions about it, but I think the position is to at least explore the potential for negotiating with them as a part of this overall resolution of the situation in Afghanistan,” Clapper said during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

A man is comforted by relatives outside of a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan on Tuesday. A suicide bomber struck a crowd of Shiite worshippers in a wave of violence against the minority Islamic sect.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan — In Afghanistan’s first major sectarian assault since the fall of the Taliban regime a decade ago, a suicide bomber slaughtered 56 Shiite worshippers and wounded more than 160 others Tuesday outside a Shiite shrine in
the capital.

The body of a woman, clutching a dead child in each arm, was sprawled along a dirt road littered with shoes, bloodstained clothing, hats and body parts after the blast, which took place as a bombing killed four Shiites in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

The Taliban condemned the attack, which was reminiscent of the wave of sectarian bloodshed that shook Iraq during the height of the war there. Suspicion centered on militant groups based in neighboring Pakistan where Sunni attacks on minority Shiites are common.

A man who claimed to be from Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a Pakistan-based group that has carried out attacks against Shiite Muslims, called various media outlets in Pakistan to claim responsibility for the bombing in Kabul. The validity of the claim could not be determined.

Until now, the decade-long Afghan war has largely been spared sectarian violence, where civilians are targeted simply for their membership in a particular religious group. Tuesday’s attack suggests that at least some militant groups may have shifted tactics, taking aim at ethnic minorities such as the Hazara who are largely Shiite and support the Afghan government and its Western partners.

The Afghan Taliban, who are mostly ethnic Pashtuns and nearly all Sunni Muslims, had been attempting to diversify their ranks, expanding to areas outside their southern homeland, recruiting some Tajiks and others and forging an alliance with Uzbek militants in the north in an attempt to present themselves as a national resistance movement.

Unlike some Iraqi militant groups — who consider anybody from the rival community a target — the Taliban have generally refrained from mass attacks against purely civilian targets. They usually focus instead on the U.S.-led coalition, Afghan forces or government offices, although recently the Taliban have been responsible for a rising number of civilian deaths in smaller attacks, according to a U.N. report.

Tuesday’s powerful explosion in Kabul was the deadliest attack in the capital since July 7, 2008, when a suicide car bombing at the gates of the Indian Embassy killed more than 60 people.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, center, meets with delegates from an Afghan womenÂ’s civil society during an international conference on the future of Afghanistan, in Bonn, Germany, Monday, Dec. 5, 2011. Representatives of more than 90 countries and organizations are gathering to discuss the future of Afghanistan after the eventual withdrawal of foreign military forces.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

BONN, Germany — Afghanistan will need the financial support of other countries for at least another decade beyond the 2014 departure of foreign troops, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Monday at an international conference.

But the conference on the future of Afghanistan in Bonn was overshadowed by a public display of bad blood between the United States and Pakistan, the two nations with the greatest stake and say in making Afghanistan safe and solvent.

Pakistan boycotted the meeting to protest an apparently errant U.S. air strike last month that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers along the rough border with Afghanistan. The strike furthered the perception in Pakistan that NATO and the U.S. are its true enemies, not the Taliban militants that operate on both sides of the border.

Pakistan is seen as instrumental to ending the insurgency in Afghanistan because of its links to militant groups and its unwillingness, from the NATO perspective, to drive insurgents from safe havens on its soil where they regroup and rearm.

During the one-day conference, about 100 nations and international organizations jointly pledged political and financial long-term support for war-torn Afghanistan to prevent it from falling back into chaos or becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

“Together we have spent blood and treasure in fighting terrorism,” Karzai said. “Your continued solidarity, your commitment and support will be crucial so that we can consolidate our gains and continue to address the challenges that remain.”

Donor nations did not commit to specific figures but pledged that economic and other advances in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001 should be safeguarded with continued funding.

The United States announced it would free more than $650 million in support for small community-based development projects in Afghanistan, frozen because of financial irregularities in Afghanistan’s key Kabul Bank.

Afghanistan estimates it will need roughly $10 billion in 2015 and onward, slightly less than half the country’s annual gross national product, to pay for its security forces which are slated to increase to 352,000 personnel by the end of 2014.

Organizer Germany and the United States had once hoped this week’s conference would showcase progress toward a political settlement between Afghanistan and the Taliban-led insurgency that 10 years of fighting by international forces has failed to dislodge. Instead, it became a status report on halting progress on other fronts and a glaring reminder that neither the Taliban nor Pakistan is ready to sign up to the international agenda for Afghanistan.

Participating nations pledged their support for an inclusive Afghan-led reconciliation process on condition that any outcome must reject violence, terrorism and endorse the Afghan constitution and its guarantee of human rights.

A suicide attacker with a bomb in his turban posed as a Taliban peace envoy and assassinated a former Afghan president who for the past year headed a government council seeking a political settlement with the insurgents.

Tuesday’s attack, carried out in former President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Kabul home, dealt a harsh blow to attempts at ending a decade of war. The killing of Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik and one of the wise old men of Afghan politics, will blunt efforts to keep in check the regional and ethnic rivalries that help feed the insurgency.

President Hamid Karzai cut short a visit to the United Nations and called on Afghans to remain unified in the face of Rabbani’s “martyrdom.”

The attack came days after a daytime assault by insurgents on the U.S. Embassy and NATO headquarters that deepened a sense of insecurity in the capital.

NATO said in a statement that two suicide bombers were involved in the attack on Rabbani, both of them men who had feigned a desire to reconcile with the government. It was unclear if a second bomber was able to detonate his explosives.

Afghan officials, however, insisted there was only one attacker. Four men were wounded, including a key presidential adviser, said Mohammad Zahir, the head of criminal investigations for the Kabul police. Initial reports had four bodyguards killed but Zahir said those were incorrect.

Close friends of Rabbani said that the former president returned from a trip to Iran to meet with a man who had been described as a high-ranking Taliban contact. The visitor, a young man, was shown into the house by two of Rabbani’s associates at the Afghan High Peace Council, who insisted that he did not need to be fully searched, said a friend who spoke anonymously because he was not a spokesman.

When Rabbani appeared, the man shook the former president’s hand and bowed as a sign of respect, said Fazel Karim Aimaq, a former lawmaker from Kunduz province and friend of Rabbani.

“Then his turban exploded,” Aimaq said. The blast broke windows in Rabbani’s home and shook nearby houses.

As the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Rabbani sought a political deal with the Taliban — with U.S. blessing — and he will be hard to replace soon. His death could unleash a well of resentment among some senior Northern Alliance members, who accuse Karzai of colluding with the Taliban.

Already Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities have begun to rearm in the face of negotiations with the Taliban, who are mostly ethnic Pashtuns, as is Karzai. Rabbani’s killing is likely to accelerate that process and lay the foundation for a possible civil war once U.S. combat troops leave the country or take on support roles by the end of 2014.

President Barack Obama said the killing will not deter the U.S. and Afghanistan from helping that country’s people live freely. He said the former president’s death is tragic because he was a man who cared deeply about Afghanistan.