05/13/2012 10:26 am ET Updated May 13, 2012

US Ambassador To Afghanistan Tries To Keep Upbeat Outlook After Assassination Of Peace Official

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan tried to preserve an upbeat perspective on peace talks in an interview on Sunday, a day that began with the assassination of a key Taliban interlocutor in the peace process.

Arsala Rahmani, a former deputy education minister under the Taliban, was shot early in the morning by an unknown assailant while in his car on the way to work.

Police officials told Reuters that Rahmani, who traveled without a bodyguard, had been stuck in traffic when a car pulled up beside him and someone opened fire before driving away.

In the interview Sunday afternoon, Ambassador Ryan Crocker condemned the killing and said he had spoken earlier in the day with the head of the High Peace Council "to offer condolences and condemnation."

"It is clearly a loss," he said. "[Rahmani] was a very highly respected, very highly regarded figure, very active on the Peace Council as he was in the Senate, trying to be that bridge between the new Afghanistan which he had so firmly embraced and his former colleagues in the Taliban."

But he added that in his conversations with Afghan officials, "they didn't need any prompting -- they said, 'We're shaken, this is a terrible loss, but by God we are not going to let these guys win.''"

Still, the death of Rahmani was just the latest blow to a fragile peace process that has been repeatedly criticized by pro-government northerners for being too generous to the Taliban, and subject to the threat of assassination by elements within the Taliban itself.

Last September, the head of the Peace Council was assassinated, and the Afghan media has lately been filled with reports, vehemently denied in Pakistan, that pro-Taliban elements in Pakistan had been behind the killings of two dozen Afghan Taliban members who had shown a willingness to enter talks with the Afghan government.

In a recent statement, the Taliban said that anybody who participates in the peace process was a valid target for assassination.

But in interviews on Sunday with various media outlets, Taliban officials denied having any role in the killing. Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told the Wall Street Journal that the killing would have no impact on the peace process because "it's dead anyway."

Waheed Muzhda, a former foreign ministry official during the Taliban's rule who is now a political analyst and maintains good contacts with the organization, told The Huffington Post that Rahmani was still well regarded among current Taliban officials.

"He had a good relations with Taliban," Muzhda said. "Rahmani was chief of the prisoners committee in the Peace Council -- he was trying to release the Taliban prisoners from Guantanamo."

Muzhda speculated that the death of Rahmani, whom he called "a very rich man," may have had more mundane origins, including a dispute over some valuable land outside Kabul.

A spokesman for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), the coalition of foreign forces in Afghanistan, described the attack as a form of "thuggery and intimidation" in a statement Sunday.

"The only possible aim of this attack is to intimidate those, who like Rahmani, want to help make Afghanistan a better place for its citizens and the region," the statement said. "This attack is clear evidence that those who oppose the legitimate government of Afghanistan have absolutely no interest in supporting the peace process on any level but through murder, thuggery, and intimidation."

Crocker, in the interview with HuffPost, affirmed this assessment, although he acknowledged that it was still early to say conclusively who had targeted Rahmani.

"Look anything is possible, but what you want to focus on is how is it interpreted, and it is universally interpreted as an effort to impede the reconciliation process," Crocker said.

"I have just enormous admiration for the Afghans generally, and those in particular who take positions that they know put them at risk and they carry on," he added. "The more the enemies of the state try to derail the rebuilding of Afghanistan through terror and violence, the more the Afghans stiffen up. It's really awe inspiring."