A gunman in a car assassinated a former high-ranking Taliban official working to end the decade-long war in Afghanistan, dealing a powerful blow Sunday to the fragile, U.S.-backed effort to bring peace to the country.
Arsala Rahmani, a top member of the Afghan peace council and a senator in Parliament, was killed a week before a key NATO summit and just hours before President Hamid Karzai announced the third stage of a five-part transition that is supposed to put Afghan security forces in control of their country by the end of 2014.
Police said an assassin with a silencer-equipped pistol shot Rahmani, who was in his 70s, as he was riding in his car in one of the capital's most secure areas, near Kabul University. The gunman fired from a white Toyota Corolla that pulled up alongside Rahmani's vehicle at an intersection. Rahmani's driver rushed him to a hospital, but he died on the way, police said.
Rahmani was a former deputy minister of higher education in the Taliban regime that was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. He eventually reconciled with the government and was trying to set up formal talks with the insurgents.
The killing was another setback to efforts to negotiate a political resolution to the war. In September 2011, former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was head of the peace council, was assassinated in his Kabul home by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban.
The Taliban denied responsibility for Rahmani's killing, although they had publicly threatened to target peace negotiators and others working with the government.
Agha Jan Motasim, a member of the Taliban leadership council known as the Quetta Shura, condemned Rahmani's assassination.
"He was a good Muslim. He was a nationalist and worked for an Islamic system in Afghanistan. We respected him," Motasim said from Turkey, where he is recovering from gunshot wounds suffered last year in Pakistan.
The U.S.-led coalition is trying to wind down its involvement in Afghanistan by finding a political resolution to the war and training Afghan security forces to take the lead in protecting their homeland. But a recent rise in violence has raised concerns about the Afghan government's readiness to assume responsibility for the country's security. If the government fails, the Taliban could stage a comeback.
The third and latest phase in the transition to Afghan-led security was announced with fanfare by Afghan officials.
Ashraf Ghani, head of a commission overseeing the transition, said that this stage _ which ends with the Afghans taking the lead in areas representing 75 percent of the population of some 34 million _ should be complete within six months.
"The third transition will be difficult _ we don't want to lie to the Afghan people," Ghani acknowledged last week. But he added that the nation is strongly determined to take control of its own affairs.
Karzai's announcement means that Afghan forces already, or soon will, lead security in all 34 provincial capitals and 260 of Afghanistan's more than 360 districts. When the third phase of transition is complete, nearly a dozen provinces in their entirety will be under Afghan control.
In Washington, President Barack Obama welcomed the Karzai government's announcement of the third phase in the transition to Afghan-led security, calling it "an important step forward in our effort to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan."
Obama noted that "we remain on track to meet our goal of having the Afghan government fully responsible for security across the country by the end of 2014."
In a statement released by the White House Press Office, Obama added that he looked forward to meeting with Karzai at next weekend's NATO summit "to discuss these critical steps that will strengthen Afghan sovereignty while responsibly winding down the war."
NATO will hold a summit May 20 and 21 in Chicago, where the training, funding and future of the Afghan national security forces will be a major topic.
"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 summit, "we will take the decisions which will shape that future training mission."
Associated Press writers Kathy Gannon, Amir Shah and Patrick Quinn in Kabul contributed to this report.