KABUL, Afghanistan — A gunman in a car killed a former high-ranking Taliban official working on reconciling Afghanistan's insurgency with the government, a fresh blow to peace efforts even as Kabul announced it was gradually taking the lead from the U.S.-led coalition for providing security in much of the country.
A gunman with a silenced pistol killed Arsala Rahmani as he was sitting in his car at an intersection in one of the capital's most secure areas near Kabul University, police said.
The death of Rahmani, a top member of the Afghan peace council and a senator in parliament's upper house, dealt another setback to efforts to negotiate a political resolution to the decade-long war. Rahmani was a former Taliban official who reconciled with the government and was active in trying to set up formal talks with the insurgents. His assassination follows that of the council's head last year.
He was shot just hours before President Hamid Karzai announced the third of a five-stage transition process that will have the Afghan National Security forces in control of the country by the end of 2014, when most foreign combat troops are to leave the country.
Ashraf Ghani, who is head of a commission overseeing the transition to Afghan-led security, said this stage — which ends with the Afghans taking the lead for areas representing 75 percent of the population — should be complete within six months.
Earlier stages put Afghans responsible for 50 percent of the population of more than 30 million.
The transition process is a key part of NATO's exit strategy from Afghanistan.
Karzai's announcement came just ahead of a NATO summit in Chicago on May 20 and 21 where the training, funding and future of the Afghan National Security Forces will be a topic of discussion, along with the gradual process called "transition."
"The completion of transition at the end of 2014 will mark the end of NATO's combat role, but not the end of our engagement. NATO is committed to an enduring partnership with Afghanistan, and to providing the training which the Afghan forces will still need, beyond 2014," NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in a statement. "At the Chicago summit on May 20-21 we will take the decisions which will shape that future training mission."
The transition process will allow most international combat forces to withdraw, leaving the Afghan security forces in control across the nation by the end of 2014. A smaller number of forces, including from the United States, are expected to stay on past that date in a mentoring, training and counterterrorism role.
"President Karzai's announcement of the third group of areas to enter transition is a testament to the capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Force who will now be responsible for the security of more than 75 percent of the Afghan population," said Gen. John Allen, the top U.S. and coalition commander.
Afghan security forces now number about 330,000 and are to increase to 352,000 by the end of the year. They 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.
The third tranche covers 122 districts, and when complete will bring the total number of districts under Afghan control to 260 in all 34 provinces. All 34 provincial capitals are included in the third phase. Afghanistan has about 400 districts nationwide.
Afghan security forces are expected to take the lead across the country sometime in 2013.
But transition can't succeed fully without some kind of reconciliation with the Taliban.
Rahmani's assassination may provide a new setback in that effort.
The Taliban denied responsibility for the killing, although they had earlier indicated that they would target peace negotiators.
Rahmani was one of about 70 influential Afghans and former Taliban appointed by Karzai to the council to try to convince insurgent leaders to reconcile with the government.
The Taliban have refused to have direct contact with the council, which they consider to be an organ of Karzai's government. They have said publicly in the past that they do not want to negotiate with Karzai or his administration, which they consider a puppet of the United States.
Privately, however, some representatives of the Taliban who are open to negotiating a settlement have met with U.S., Afghan and other international officials. Rahmani, along with other members of the peace council, was trying to forge relations with those Taliban amenable to peace talks.
It was unclear if a faction within the Taliban opposed to negotiations could have been responsible for the shooting.
Aga Jan Motasim, a former Afghan minister during the Taliban regime and a current member of the Taliban leadership council known as the Quetta Shura, named after the Pakistani city, condemned the killing.
"He was a good Muslim. He was a nationalist and worked for an Islamic system in Afghanistan. We respected him," Motasim said about Rahmani in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press on Sunday from Turkey where he is recovering from gunshot wounds he received from unknown gunmen last year in the Pakistani port city of Karachi.
Motasim, who is in favor of peace negotiations, is an advocate for multiparty politics in Afghanistan. He suspects he was attacked by Taliban hard-liners who fiercely oppose his positions.
The U.S. has backed the council's efforts to pull the Taliban into political discussions with Kabul as part of its strategy for reducing violence and turning over responsibility to Afghan forces.
The initiative suffered an earlier blow in September 2011 when former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was head of the council, was assassinated by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban. Kabul blames Pakistan-based leaders of the Taliban for his killing, though the Taliban denies this.
The U.S. has its own contacts with the Taliban, but in March the militant organization said they were suspending contacts with the United States over what they said was a lack of progress in releasing Taliban prisoners from U.S. detention in Guantanamo.
The last substantive discussions between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives were in January, and both initiatives to build trust and move toward real peace talks are in limbo.
Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon, Deb Riechmann and Patrick Quinn in Kabul contributed to this report.