Taliban Leader Dies Amid Regional Moves To End Afghanistan Conflict

By T.C. Malhotra | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - The death of the second most powerful figure in the fundamentalist group that rules most of Afghanistan leaves the region pondering the possible effect on attempts to bring peace to the troubled country.

Mullah Muhammad Rabbani died of liver cancer in Pakistan on Monday, officials at the Taliban's embassy in Islamabad confirmed.

His body was flown home in a specially-chartered U.N. plane, which was authorized to break a strict flight embargo. The Taliban declared three days of mourning and closed all government departments, said Wakeel Ahmad Mutawakkil, the militia's foreign minister.

Rabbani, 45, was chairman of the Taliban's Council of Ministers and second in command to Mullah Muhammad Omar. It was not immediately clear who would replace him.

Regional analysts said Tuesday it was probably too soon to say what impact his death would have.

"This will be too early to hope for any big change in Taliban's policy or peace efforts in Afghanistan," said the New Delhi-based political analyst, Raj Kumar. "After knowing who will replace [Rabbani] in the government, some picture may become clear."

His death comes at a time when India and Iran have resolved to work together to seek a resolution to the Afghan conflict, calling for a broad-based government to replace the present regime.

During a visit to Iran, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee joined his Iranian host, President Mohammed Khatami, in expressing concern about the threat they said both of their countries face from the Taliban.

They voiced support for the country's independence, unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Taliban controls some 90 percent of the country, while other factions hold out in territory in the north.

Vajpayee said later that India and Iran would "work diplomatically and politically to contain the dangers posed by the fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan, which are spawning terrorism using money from drug trafficking."

Khatami denounced narco-terrorism activities allegedly emanating from Afghanistan and the recent destruction by the Taliban of ancient Buddha statues.

"I am deeply regretful that such crimes are committed in the name of Islam," he said.

The Indo-Iranian stance drew some regional support, but Pakistan - India's arch foe and an ally of the Taliban - ruled out any part for India to play in bringing peace to the war-devastated country.

"We do not see any role for India," Pakistan Foreign Minister Abdul Sattar said in Islamabad, noting that India was not one of an eight-country group identified by the United Nations as being key players in efforts to resolve the two-decade old conflict.

The eight are Pakistan, Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia and the U.S.

The Taliban also called India's motives into question.

"The hostile language used by Mr. Vajpayee against the Islamic Emirates of Afghanistan reveals the interventionist policy being followed by India in the region," the Taliban mission in Islamabad said in a statement.

It expressed surprise that Iran had allowed Vajpayee to use the opportunity of addressing the Iranian parliament "for his outpourings against Islam, in the garb of lashing out at the [Taliban]."

The Taliban is under U.N. sanctions because of its refusal to surrender for trial the Saudi-born terror suspect, Osama bin Laden, wanted by the U.S. on suspicion of masterminding terror attacks. Bin Laden is sheltering in Afghanistan as a "guest" of the Taliban.