Death of a statesman

Assassinated former Afghan president Rabbani began his career as a firebrand professor before becoming venerated elder.

Taliban claims killing of ex-Afghan president
Barhanuddin Rabbani’s aim towards the latter part of his life was to unite the people of Afghanistan [GALLO/GETTY]

“O Professor, your blood will not have been spilt in vain. We will not rest until the perpetrators are found and we are going to tear them apart with our teeth!” declared one female orator at the funeral of Barhanuddin Rabbani on September 24.
The air in Kabul has been rife with potentially explosive tension in the days following the former Afghan president’s assassination by a man posing as a peace envoy. Since the Taliban denied responsibility, and plausible motives can be found in nearly every camp across the spectrum, speculation has run wild over who was actually behind the killing of the man who led the nation to victory in the jihad against the Soviet invasion, and who might have brought peace to the people of Afghanistan in these troubled times.

Rabbani’s death has radicalised some segments of his supporters who are now hell-bent on avenging their leader’s death, and on reaffirming their long-held position that it was never a good idea to negotiate with the Taliban in the first place.
To appreciate the full impact of Rabbani’s erasure from the volatile Afghan scene, it is imperative to look back at his contributions to Afghan politics. It is a legacy that spans half a century, including the stand-off with communism, the decade-long battle against the Soviet Red Army and the resistance against the ruling Taliban.
In his final years, Rabbani redefined his role as that of an elder statesman, but he continued to be referred to as Ustad [“professor”], a title evoking his reputation as a “learned man” and the formative influence he exerted on an entire generation of Afghans.

In 2010, he was entrusted by the beleaguered President Hamid Karzai to head the High Peace Council (HPC), and broker a peace with their “angry brothers”, a euphemism for neo-Taliban extremists. It is hard to say whether Rabbani might have succeeded, had he lived, but his assassination was certainly a telling sign of the times.
The professor
In the spring of 1974, Afghan state police stormed Kabul University to arrest Barhanuddin Rabbani, then a renowned professor of Islamic jurisprudence. Under surveillance for some time, the Islamist political ideology he espoused gave the communist elements in the regime of President Mohammed Daoud Khan cause for alarm.
An impassioned orator and a graduate of Egypt’s Al Azhar University, Rabbani was seen as one of the key proponents of political Islam, an alternative to the fast-growing trend of communism both among educated urbanites and the rural population of Afghanistan.
With the help of devoted students, the thirty-something professor slipped out of the university undetected by the officers guarding the facility, and embarked upon an epic journey through the heartlands of ethnic Pashtuns. It was Pashtun tribesmen who facilitated his escape to Pakistan where he was granted safe haven, and it was in Pakistan that he acquired the financial and political support to become one of the key figures of the Afghan opposition. By 1979, the mild-mannered professor was transformed into the spiritual leader of legions of young Afghan men eager to wage “Holy Jihad” against the Soviet invasion.
Nearly 40 years later, on the eve of post-Taliban Afghanistan’s second presidential election in 2009, Barhanuddin Rabbani re-lived this cataclysmic episode in vivid detail in his quiet study on the upper floor of a highly secured home in the plush Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul.

“They didn’t ask questions. They didn’t know who I was. They brought me char-grilled corn and milk and bread,” Rabbani told me. An ethnic Tajik, Rabbani recalled with a hint of nostalgia the hospitality extended to him by Pashtun tribesmen so many years earlier when he sought refuge on his way to Peshawar, with Afghan state police in hot pursuit. Back in the early 1970s, ethnicity was not the convulsive issue it would become in later years.
Inherent contradictions


Tanya Goudsouzian speaks to Al Jazeera’s David Foster about Rabbani’s legacy

It was, perhaps, an example of the many contradictions that marked the life and times of the man who would become a rallying figure for Afghanistan’s ethnic Tajik population, that he was in fact aided by ethnic Pashtuns at the onset of his political journey. Until the very end, Rabbani insisted in various interviews that his party – the Jamiat-i-Islami [“Islamic Party”] – should not be pigeonholed as an ethnic Tajik faction, claiming that it also included a sizable proportion of Pashtuns, Uzbeks and Hazaras who shared the same values.
He ascended to the presidency of Afghanistan in 1992, a post he resolutely held onto during the Afghan civil war and the period of Taliban rule – when his government’s writ ran over scarcely ten per cent of Afghan territory.
That he was assassinated on September 20, 2011 by an assailant whose turban (a staple Afghan tribal garment) concealed a bomb, marked an ironic end to a long, tumultuous career in a country that has not known peace in more than three decades. For those who view Afghanistan from the prism of ethnic politics, they will claim that the professor was felled by the very “Pashtun extremists” he trusted.
Although he pitted himself as a leader with national appeal, claiming to enjoy support across ethnic lines, few could dispute that his party primarily drew non-Pashtun commanders. During his presidency, the Tajiks of Afghanistan saw an unprecedented period of prosperity.
Even though some members of Rabbani’s Jamiat-i Islami party have pointed the finger of blame at President Karzai (as the assassin was allegedly staying at Karzai’s guesthouse prior to his meeting with Rabbani), scarcely a day after the assassination, there were already quiet suggestions that it may also have been an “inside job”.
Ayatollah Asef Mohseni, Chairman of Afghanistan’s Shia Council, appeared on Afghan TV to say that he had met with Rabbani a couple of days before the assassination, and claimed that Rabbani had confided in him his dissatisfaction with various goings-on in Kabul. Without disclosing details, Mohseni expressed the belief that this would be a clue leading to the perpetrators.
The professor was guarded by a security detail, living in a secure location with barricades across the road alongside his house; anybody who entered his home was thoroughly searched in the manner of a US airport security screening post-9/11. Indeed, there was enough discontent within Rabbani’s own camp – disgruntled former members of Jamiat-i Islami – to reasonably entertain a myriad theories of a conspiratorial nature.
Appointed head of the HPC by President Hamid Karzai, Barhanuddin Rabbani, in his twilight years, was entrusted with a mission vital to the survival of the post-Taliban Afghan government. In calling for dialogue with the neo-Taliban, Rabbani’s drastic turnaround policy vis-à-vis his faction’s staunchest enemy surprised many observers.

Even segments of his own supporters concluded their leader had sold out their cause for his own political survival. This was a harsh assessment, even if some felt Rabbani’s altered position was a mark of his pragmatist approach and his ability to adjust to evolving conditions. There was also growing sentiment among younger but fiercely ambitious politicians in Rabbani’s camp, that their leader essentially held them back, blocked their own careers and steadfastly refused to step aside in their favour.
Such disgruntlements notwithstanding, if Rabbani managed to stage an improbable comeback after teetering on the edge of political oblivion back in 2001 – that is, after the US aerial bombardment campaign to remove the ruling Taliban from power in the wake of the 9/11 attacks – the feat was accomplished at great cost.
By stepping aside in favour of political newcomer and America’s chosen candidate, Hamid Karzai, Rabbani not only acquired an ally in the new order but ensured his own political survival – effectively re-inventing himself as an “elder statesman”.
Nevertheless, at the time many wondered whether this was in fact voluntary, or due to a lack of support from key figures in the Northern Alliance, such as Yunus Qanooni and General Mohammed Fahim, who were ministers in the post-Taliban interim administration set up at the conference in Bonn, Germany, in 2001.
Interview with a leader
In October 2002, I interviewed Rabbani while he was visiting his family in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates. During an hour-long conversation, he refuted allegations that he had been marginalised since stepping down.
“Our aim was to unite the Afghan people, so when I stepped down, I did so in the interest of the Afghan people,” he said.
For some time, it would seem the larger-than-life figures of the jihad days were relegated to pariah status on the Afghan political scene, as charges were brought against them by various international human rights organisations accusing them of committing heinous crimes against humanity during the civil war. The potential fallout from these accusations was tempered by the passing of an Amnesty Law by the first Afghan parliament, which included many deputies who were themselves implicated in the human rights reports.
That Rabbani refrained from running in any of the presidential elections, and simply lobbied behind closed doors to secure choice positions for his own candidates – serving as a political godfather of sorts to the ethnic-Tajik community – might be interpreted as an example of his astute pragmatism.
Although he was often dismissed as “irrelevant” in the current Afghan political scene, it would have been a mistake to downplay his backroom influence or his uncanny understanding of Afghan and regional dynamics that could only stem from decades of experience. Indeed, during his last years, he served, by his own account, as “an advisor” to President Karzai. To what extent Karzai heeded the professor’s advice cannot be ascertained.
During the Sharjah interview, Rabbani expressed his conviction that if Washington did not tread carefully while hunting for residual Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, it could risk “provoking the Afghan people”. It was a concern that would prove prophetic.
“We suffered immensely from the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But looking for them now is not like it was in the beginning. There are no longer any centres or bases in Afghanistan. If there are people still left in Afghanistan, the Americans need to go about it in a way that does not provoke our people,” he declared.
Deepening divides
I met with Rabbani again in 2004, this time at his home in Kabul, when the country was gearing up for its first ever presidential election. President Karzai had appointed Ahmed Zia Massoud as his vice presidential running mate. Massoud was both Rabbani’s son-in-law, and the younger brother of the slain mujahidin commander Ahmed Shah Massoud, who had also been minister of defence during Rabbani’s presidency.
Complicating matters – if only slightly – was the announcement that then-Education Minister Yunos Qanuni, who served as a key military strategist for the late Ahmed Shah Massoud during the time of the resistance, was also running for president. There were concerns that the reported schisms within the Jamiat-i Islami party were deepening. But Rabbani was confident that his loyal constituents and the bulk of the mujahidin who served under him would support his will in the democratic process. Karzai gathered nearly 55 per cent of votes, whereas Qanuni settled for 17 per cent. Rabbani’s support proved critical for Karzai’s victory.
At the time, signs of further polarisation between various ethnic groups that made up the country appeared, which was a bad omen. In the event, offering up his son-in-law, an ethnic Tajik like himself, as a vice presidential candidate to Karzai was an effort to sell a palatable package to an increasingly sceptical Afghan population and international community – as well, of course, as retaining his position of influence by proxy.
“There are problems and there is a crisis of confidence, and certainly the elections do bring divisions and polarise the population, but as it has been decided now, we must all try and make it work,” Rabbani said. “There is no doubt that [although] most of the things that the government starts are with good intentions, they are certainly not without dangers – and there are dangers.”
White beard
In 2009, I met Rabbani for the last time. A bonafide “white beard” – an Afghan term for venerated elder – we spoke mostly about the heady days of the 1960s and 1970s when his political career was taking off. He recalled his years of exile in Pakistan, and his friends who were killed after the Afghan communist takeover in 1978. He spoke of the Soviet invasion, and mentioned, in passing, a young Osama bin Laden, who had come to Afghanistan to take part in the fight against the Red Army.
“In those days, [Osama bin Laden] had come with an Arab organisation concerned with refugees, health and education. Later on, some of the young Arabs decided to join the jihad. They formed a group under bin Laden’s command,” he confirmed. “He was very quiet. He wouldn’t talk much. You never got the feeling that he was a fighter, or that he even liked fighting. He had come from the US, and many people would come to meet him, even American congressmen.”
Rabbani remembered the momentous defeat of the Soviets, when his forces were the first to enter Kabul in 1992, and the rockets that thundered over the capital on orders from his arch-rival, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He recalled the day he went to meet Hekmatyar and asked him to stop the attacks.
“He told me, half joking: ‘You are alone. I can capture you.’ I told him: ‘Capture me, but don’t attack Kabul. You’re giving the mujahidin a bad name!'”
As this exchange highlighted, Rabbani had a way with words. In later years, his detractors would refer to him pejoratively as a deal-maker, others saw him as a savvy coalition-builder.
Even in death, this may yet be the case.
If there had been schisms among his followers, with observers noting the gradual weakening – or even, dissolution – of the once broad-sweeping Jamiat-i Islami party, Rabbani’s assassination has galvanised supporters and former party members under the banner of retribution.
If in recent years, Rabbani had been seen as a neutralised political force, then in death he has ignited fierce passion, injecting the opposition with renewed zest and sense of purpose.

Tanya Goudsouzian is a media professional with extensive experience in post-conflict countries.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.