With the death of Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, two things seem to have happened. First, the circles that were started by the killing, also in a suicide bombing, of Ahmad Shah Massoud seems to have come to an end, or moved to a different phase. Second, some kind of closure on the Afghan jihad against the USSR seems to have been achieved, as another of the leaders of the seven-party alliance which had recognition, has passed away, thus leaving only Gulbadin Hekmatyar, a former student of Professor Rabbanis, like Ahmad Shah Massoud, in the field. The pupil-teacher relationship was strong enough in the case not just to make Ahmad Shah Defence Minister in the government headed by Hekmatyar that had Rabbani as its President, but for Massoud to die as a member of Rabbanis party. It might have helped Massoud that Rabbani was a fellow Tajik, which meant that he was not bound to any particular Pakhtun tribe, but it also helped him become more or less independent, and if Massoud was content to be the 'Lion of the Panjshir, Rabbani tried to play national politics. For that reason, it was considered necessary to eliminate Massoud, not Rabbani, just before the attacks on the World Trade Centre, by an assassination through a suicide bombing carried out by a bomb in the camera of a TV crew. That provides an eerie parallel between the deaths: just as Massouds assassins used the cover of the 'Lion of Panjshir whom they had just come to film, similarly did the Rabbani assassins use his being head of the High Council for Peace and thus the head of the negotiations with the Taliban. Of the various heads of groups called into being as part of the seven-party alliance, Rabbani was the most active currently, apart from Hekmatyar. These are virtually the original rebels, for they had already come into Pakistan, in exile, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and even earlier, when President Daud Khan was overthrown by Noor Muhammad Taraki. Having him on its side was thus a double-edged sword, for while it established the ancient-ness of its credentials, it also brought another Tajik to the forefront. The Taliban were ambivalent on ethnic issue. On the one hand, they have maintained a rigid Pashtun ethnicity, which is what has created Pakistani interest in them, for Afghanistan is seen as exerting an ethnic pull on Pakistans own Pashtuns, a minority, but a very large one. On the other, the Taliban acknowledge the authority of learned men, and also acknowledge that learning need not have any ethnicity. In that respect, Rabbani was, perhaps, the right interlocutor for his status as a man of learning was not disputed. If it had been a matter of pure ethnicity, then President Hamid Karzai was as much a Kandahari Pashtun as Mullah Umar, and would not have needed a Tajik interlocutor to deal with the Taliban. At the same time, was the assassination part of a general Taliban campaign that showed the inability of the Karzai regime to protect itself, or was Professor Rabbani doing something which hurt them in particular? That the Karzai regime is unable to protect those it has brought on board is shown by the series of high-profile assassinations that started with President Karzais own half-brother, Ahmad Wali, who was the Governor of Kandahar. There was then the assassination of the Mayor of Kandahar, then a presidential adviser in Kabul, an attack on a major hotel in Kabul, with the assassination of Professor Rabbani sending yet another signal that those associated with the regime are not safe from the Taliban. The negotiations between the regime and the Taliban are something that should be assumed as taking place between the Taliban and the American occupiers, for posture as Karzai will; nothing will convince the Afghan people that Karzai is anything, but an American puppet. Therefore, depending on how the Taliban saw him, Rabbani would have assumed importance. If they saw him as Karzais messenger, rather than that of the Americans, his importance would have been lessened, for the Taliban have been used to negotiating with the Americans from their days in power in the 1990s. It should also be remembered that Rabbani, being someone who goes back to a pre-Taliban era, would be more likely than not to be valued by the USA. At the same time, if indeed the Taliban are striking Karzais personal supporters, Rabbani would not have that much value. It must not be forgotten that Karzai, lacking able lieutenants, might find it difficult to negotiate either his future after the Americans leave, or after the Presidency (he is now in his second term). If the SOFA (Status of Forces Agreement) is successfully negotiated, the US would maintain forces in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, allowing not just NATO to withdraw the forces they have there, but also the USA to reduce its present commitments. However, the SOFA is also predicated on the Afghan security forces being able to keep their regime in place. For this assumption to be made, the Taliban must be brought on board. Whether or not they can provide the necessary atmosphere will depend, to a large extent, on whether they can deliver a peace that will help the Karzai regime stay in place. The American occupiers and the Taliban seem to be going over ground that they did in the 1990s, though at that time, the USA had not shown the ability to do what they have since done: Put troops on the ground and command the air. The USA has placed the blame for Rabbanis assassination on the Haqqani network. Though it is controlled now by his sons, the titular head is still Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, another veteran of the anti-Soviet jihad. The Haqqanis do not lack any motive for not killing Rabbani, they equally lack any strong motive for doing so. However, that would indicate the assassination may not have much impact on the Taliban-American talks, which were not just taking place, but are also supposed to have broken down. While Rabbani was not part of these talks, his having been assassinated at the time they broke down cannot be thought as without importance, even if that importance is that the Taliban have resumed a campaign of suicide blasts interrupted for the talks. If nothing else, Rabbanis assassination has shown that the talks process is not just long, drawn-out and frustrating, but it is also fraught with risks. However, if these risks are not taken, there will be no talks. If Rabbanis successor at the Council stops seeing intermediaries, it might as well go out of business. One way of ensuring that the talks kept going on would be for them to take place between the right people. If the USA cannot find interlocutors, who can deliver on guarantees of security for their remaining forces, it will have to rely on its own security to continue talking. It must turn to Pakistan to continue the dialogue. As Afghanistan moves towards the end game, there are conflicting goals for the various parties. The Americans want to find a way to stay in the country, even though everyone else wants them out. Similarly, Hamid Karzai wishes to go on enjoying power, even though he is neither well liked enough in the country, while his constitutional mandate is approaching an end. The only real way of escaping the situation is for the Americans to find interlocutors, who can give them guarantees. The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as Executive Editor of The Nation. Email: maniazi@nation.com.pk