| ||Burhanuddin Rabbani: Life ruled by an ambition for power |
By Jonathan Steele
Burhanuddin Rabbani, 1940-2011
The appointment of the former president Burhanuddin Rabbani as head of Afghanistan's High Peace Council last year came as a surprise to many. His efforts on behalf of the current president, Hamid Karzai, came to an end when he was assassinated last week by a suicide bomber, one of two men posing as Taliban envoys.
The assassination bodes ill. Senior Tajik leaders' suspicions that Karzai is planning to make a secret deal with the Taliban will be hardened. They will want revenge and be even less willing to accept the return of the Taliban to political power.
The ethnic factor in Afghan politics may return to centre stage, and a severe blow has been dealt to hopes for a settlement of the country's ideological and political divisions after 38 years of war.
Advertisement: Story continues below Rabbani, who was 70, was born in the northern Afghan province of Badakhshan in 1940. He was an ethnic Tajik, and so belonged to Afghanistan's main minority group after the traditionally dominant Pashtun, from which members of the Taliban are largely drawn. He went to the Abu Hanifa religious high school in Kabul, then studied Islamic law and theology at Kabul University.
In the ferment of campus discussion of the 1960s, Kabul students were fiercely divided between radical Sunni Islamists and secular left-wingers.
The latter joined the PDPA, the Moscow-backed People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which later ran the country under Soviet protection. Rabbani became a lecturer, and a prominent spokesman, recruiter and theoretician for the Islamists.
Between 1966 and 1968 he studied at Cairo's Al-Azhar University, where he developed close links to the Muslim Brotherhood, among the oldest and largest Islamic groups, founded in Egypt. On returning to Kabul, he became leader of Jamiat-i Islami, the Society of Islam, a long-established movement which disagreed with fundamentalism.
When King Zahir Shah was toppled in 1973 by his more dynamic cousin Daoud Khan, who was keen to modernise Afghanistan on secular lines, Rabbani moved to the countryside and advocated rebellion. Sought by the police, he escaped to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
After Daoud was ousted in a PDPA coup in 1978 and Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Rabbani moved to the Pakistani border town of Peshawar to help mount armed resistance. He became one of the mujahideen leaders of the so-called Peshawar Seven, who used Pakistani, Saudi, US and Chinese support and weaponry to fuel a full-scale insurgency. Not a military man himself, Rabbani was the mentor and religious inspiration for his fellow Tajik jihadi commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, who had come under his influence as an engineering student in Kabul and later became one of the more successful fighters against the Russians. Although ethnicity was not the dominant factor during the mujahideen struggle, the link with Massoud enhanced Rabbani's status among the other jihadi leaders, who were mainly Pashtuns.
Rabbani was always ambitious for political power, but his chance did not come for more than a decade. The Russians remained in Afghanistan for nine years and left the secular regime of Mohammad Najibullah in charge for another three. The change in power in the Kremlin from Mikhail Gorbachev to Boris Yeltsin in 1991 tipped the balance. Najibullah was abandoned by Moscow and his regime collapsed in 1992 when army commanders defected to the mujahideen side.
Shortly before they finally entered Kabul to take power throughout the country, the leaders of the Peshawar Seven had agreed that the presidency would rotate between them. When the first mujahideen president stepped down after two months as planned, Rabbani became Afghanistan's first Tajik ruler since the state was founded in the 18th century.
Short, pugnacious and broad-shouldered like a bantamweight fighter, Rabbani managed to outmanoeuvre his colleagues. He kept extending his term in office by claiming that a change at the top would provoke greater insecurity. By then the mujahideen alliance had split, and Kabul became the cockpit of a new civil war as leaders shelled their rivals' fiefdoms in different districts of the city. Some 50,000 civilians were killed.
Rabbani presided over a reversion to strict Islamic codes in Kabul. Cinemas were closed, alcohol was banned, women had to wear the hijab in public.
A gallows was erected in a park near Kabul's central bazaar, so that convicts could be hanged in public.
The fighting among mujahideen groups led to the rise of the Taliban, a younger generation of more puritanical Pashtun jihadis. They felt their leaders had betrayed the ideals of the resistance. As an intellectual and religious scholar, Rabbani was especially blamed for failing to achieve peace and unity, and for the rampant corruption.
The Taliban took up arms against their former leaders and soon took power in Kandahar, the country's second city and the bastion of Pashtun conservatism. In 1996 the Taliban swept forward and ousted the mujahideen from Kabul. Rabbani joined Massoud, the leading Tajik commander, and his defence minister, in retreating to their northern heartland. He remained head of the United National and Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, better known as the Northern Alliance, which included Tajik and Uzbek leaders. Massoud was killed in north-eastern Afghanistan in September 2001 in a suicide bomb attack.
Now armed by Russia, which had become concerned about Islamic fundamentalism in Chechnya and the Caucasus, they tried to turn back the Taliban tide. Even though the Northern Alliance held barely 10 per cent of Afghan territory, international hostility to the Taliban was such that the alliance was allowed to retain Afghanistan's seat at the UN.
When the US invaded after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Rabbani hoped to regain supreme power.
As soon as the Taliban left the city under the weight of American bombs, he rushed to Kabul and installed himself in the presidential palace.
But the Bush administration wanted a Pashtun, representing the majority ethnic group, to take charge. At a UN-led conference of Afghans in Bonn in late 2001, which Rabbani refused to attend, the Americans succeeded in getting Karzai appointed as interim president. US diplomats had to work hard to persuade Rabbani to step down.
Without a main political role any more, Rabbani's star waned, although he was elected to parliament and kept the leadership of Jamiat-i Islami for the next decade. Still hated by the Taliban, who had started armed resistance to Karzai and the Americans in 2002, Rabbani seemed an unlikely figure to bring them on board in 2010 through a peace council. Some analysts suggested his appointment showed that Karzai was not serious about negotiations, since Rabbani was more likely to sabotage talks than promote them. Others never expected the council would really be the body to conduct talks with the Taliban. If they took place at all, they would be run by Karzai and the Americans.
It is not known if Rabbani had any family that survives him.